Two literary traditions – the small-town novel and the coming-of-age novel – intertwine genially in “Setting Free the Kites,” by Alex George, author of the immigrant saga “A Good American” (2013). In this boyish tale, set mostly at an amusement park on the coast of Maine, two young buddies find solace in friendship amid their own family tragedies.
In 1976, moody Robert Carter goes somewhat neglected by his mother and father, who run the local theme park, as they care for his brother, Liam, who has muscular dystrophy. Thankfully, Robert befriends a newcomer from Texas, the animated and quixotic Nathan Tilly, who leads him through a world of adventure in an abandoned mill. Nathan hooks himself up to an old ceiling pulley system and makes Robert flip the rusty switch.
“For the next hour,” writes George in his smooth, simple style, “Nathan flew across the second floor and through the hole between the warehouse and the loading bay. I sent him up and down and back and forth across the mill’s vast, empty spaces. Nathan balanced on the hook and cackled with delight. ... The old mill was every boy’s dream. As we roamed its enormous rooms, we were confined only by our imaginations.”
Nathan’s glee in high places signals both his free-spiritedness and a darker instinct, one shared by his father, who soon comes to tragedy. Shortly thereafter, Liam dies after a long, painful struggle with his disease, leaving Robert his beloved punk rock record collection and a letter instructing his brother to “play them LOUD.” (Punk music is a recurring theme in “Setting Free the Kites,” a somewhat odd fit for a story with such a sentimental tone.)
Amid this portrait of loneliness and loss, Robert and Nathan grow ever closer, working alongside each other at the amusement park. While Robert operates the Ferris wheel, Nathan delights the summer crowds by gamboling in a dragon costume. “He seemed to inhabit the costume like a second skin,” George writes. “He lived the role absolutely and without compromise. ... He learned to convey the entire spectrum of dragon emotions – from joy to sorrow, from ferocity to gentleness – all without the benefit of words.”
Their sunny friendship is complicated when Nathan becomes obsessed with Faye, the beautiful girlfriend of Hollis Calhoun, the town bully. George explicitly evokes “The Great Gatsby” several times with this quartet, making it clear that Nathan is the ill-fated Gatsby, Faye is the elusive Daisy Buchanan and Hollis is the brutal Tom Buchanan, while Robert plays narrator Nick Carraway, shaking his head ruefully at the overreaching folly of his beloved, doomed friend.
Though “Setting Free the Kites” is marketed as a book for adults, there’s something adolescent about its wistful narrator and somewhat predictable plot. Also, the story suggests a watered-down John Irving in its quaintly hardscrabble New England setting, eccentrically lovable secondary characters and quirky mishaps, including a PG-rated counterpart to a notoriously grisly scene involving male anatomy in “The World According to Garp.”
It’s hard to escape the feeling that George, a Brit who lives in Missouri, is enamored of American small-town life without knowing it deeply enough to capture its truly stranger and darker sides. Late in “Setting Free the Kites,” he writes, “There’s just so much to live for.” That’s certainly true, but it would be nicer to feel that ideal borne out in the grains of this story rather than merely told it.
Setting Free the Kites
By Alex George
Putnam. 326 pp. $27