Going with the title Mama’s Boy is about the only thing that doesn’t work well in Rick DeMarinis’ novel.
Quick, lucid storytelling, and curt and cruel, yet rich language transforms what is a rather simple premise—a sheltered adolescent in the 1950s outgrowing his parents’ cocoon and trying to find himself in the army—into a searing 286-page quest for sex, love and purpose. From Gus Reppo, future family dentist to Airman Gate, flawed hero chasing an American Dream. Part James Dean, part Holden Caulfield, part Pony Boy Curtis.
Our protagonist, young Gus Reppo, can drive the reader crazy at times in his decision making, especially during one chunk in the middle of the book that takes him to Southern California in search of a past and finding instead a lunatic middle-aged woman that changes the course of his future. But the young can be forgiven for making dumb decisions and driving you crazy. Gus Reppo is sweet enough and fiercely loyal, so his idiotic decisions are more forgivable than hopeless.
The real appeal of Mama’s Boy, however, comes from the supporting characters. Naïve Tracy you hope will finally go all the way; pretentious Josh whom you love to see Airman Gate emasculate; dear old dad FDR, cuckolded and he never even knew; brief but fun Lt. Dorio; irredeemable Matt Runkle; wise old Solomon Coe, both drunk and sharp whenever he’s around; the townies, the airmen, the town whores, the religious zealots, the crusty sergeants that all pop in and out of Mama’s Boy breathing oxygen into the narrative, each far more contented with their lot in life than our still-searching hero. That makes them a nice bracket of stability to balance the at-times beyond unhinged Gus Reppo.
DeMarinis can be subtle and obvious in his descriptions, and both work when they need to. On page 191, DeMarinis makes it easy to see college boy Josh for what he is—over-educated and under-experienced—with his transparent over-explanation of one’s self: “Gus saw the title of Josh’s book: Being and Nothingness…You’ll find it a bit over your head, unless of course you’ve read your Hegel and Heidegger first…You’ve got to reinvent yourself from scratch or the world will do it for you, oui? The challenge, you see, lies in inventing a self that is authentique, one you can live with day to day without shame or guilt.”
Then a sweet moment on page 238 other authors might have forced; DeMarinis lets subtlety win out: “Excuse me for saying so, but I think you’re bullshitting me…Lt. Dorio leaned down and kissed Springer on the mouth. It lasted long enough for Gus to walk to the end of the ward and back.”
DeMarinis exhibits skillful writing that moves the reader along chapters at a time. Coupled with our protagonists’ prevailing struggle for purpose, or conclusion, and it’s Hemingway crossed with Beckett, with a dash of Larry Flynt on the side. The prose is thin and trim, a welterweight on a speed bag. Yet the vocabulary is rich and full-bodied, an old-fashioned Sunday dinner of variety. And there’s enough sex to stay off the internet for a few days.
Humor and honest reflection play a duet page after page. Just enough of one, just enough of the other. Page 48: “Tell you true, Sunshine, you ain’t much in the saddle…I was you gunfighter, I wouldn’t apply for stud work just yet.” Page 25: “Being a visitor with limited staying rights was ideal. A visitor did not have to shoulder the responsibilities rightfully belonging to the host. The routines of ownership were the source of boredom—like a record needle stuck in a groove, playing the same broken lyric over and over until it became as meaningless as a hiccup.” Page 160: “He put the blocks to a general’s wife in a coat closet during a full-dress party with a lot of brass hats in attendance…The general opened the closet door and found his wife smoking the Major’s purple panatela…” Page 257: “Walt Disney made the movie. How could Walt Disney make a movie about a filthy old pervert messing around with his own daughter?…Did you ever notice that Donald Duck has no pants hiding his feathered glory? His what?...” Page 243: “ Dead, he knew. Dead was dead—a final unchangeable state…White picket fences, children playing in the yard, Dad mowing the lawn, Mom packing the car with picnic goodies, grampa dozing in his rocket—all of it gone…These thoughts didn’t depress him. They made him, as his evaluation papers said, indifferent.”
It’s not nihilism at the core of Mama’s Boy, although at times it tries to push that mantra through. That’s a smokescreen. There’s plenty of purpose in life, in Gus Reppo’s life. He’s just not sure what it is. That’s his challenge. At times the story plays out like one great big case of blue balls—or lover’s nuts as our Airman calls them—and it’s true that there’s no great payoff to ride off in the sunset. But there is a sense of accomplishment, however abstract. And it happens on the very last page. And it has nothing to do with family or friends. And it has nothing to do with Staff Sergeant Ray Springer’s Shithouse Rule, a perfectly uncomplicated explanation for anything that carries Gus through just about every dilemma before that. Because it has everything to do with independence. And nothing to do with being a mama’s boy.