"Dysfunctional" is too kind a word for the McManus family, festering in Queens, N.Y., in the summer of 1961. Dad is a drunk and a borderline psycho. Mom is a complainer who clings to childish dreams of affluence. Grandpa is senile. Grandma nags. Six-year-old Rudy hardly eats and has never spoken a word. Fourteen-year-old Michael, the narrator, is a fat kid who copes with the surrounding turmoil by raiding the refrigerator and immersing himself in Roger Maris' pursuit of Babe Ruth's home-run record--a "herculean (feat) compared to the accomplishments and work of my father."
Tom Grimes' novella seems to lead us inexorably down two well-worn paths to tearjerkerdom: 1) Rudy will speak, and 2) Maris' 61st homer will somehow profoundly affect these people's lives. Neither happens. Instead, the story throughout is guarded and sober, tempered by Michael's perspective as an adult, looking back and knowing how little--except for his "taking responsibility" for Rudy--ever changed.
Grimes' writing can be clumsy, especially when the abstract language of the grown-up Michael overwhelms the boy's perceptions. He summarizes and preaches too much. But he plots well and has a clear sense of his characters and the kind of pain--without purpose or dignity--that corrodes their lives.