CLARE KELLY, the narrator of Brendan Halpin's new novel, "Long Way Back," is an appealingly protective, sarcastic, tenderhearted and self-deprecating big sister who comes across as an older version of the snappy 14-year-old Ros in Halpin's first novel, "Donorboy."
Ros had lost her two mommies in an accident and learned to live with her biological father, the sperm donor, by keeping a journal. ("What are you doing, Ros? Oh, I'm just writing in my grief journal. Okay, grief journal grief journal, mad corny, mad libs, mad stupid, mad at the world.... ")
Clare introduces herself in a similar vein. "It is 1980. I'm fourteen, and, physically, I'm peaking -- thinner and more beautiful than I will ever be again. But this isn't really about me." It's about Francis, her brother, who is 12 that year. The two of them, named after saints and raised by parents who devote themselves to "doing God's work" in Central and South America, develop a powerful bond.
Clare is the only one who can get her little brother out of a funk when he is young and who can buffer life's worst pains when he is older. "Long Way Back" is the story of Francis' descent into grief and loss of faith, and his salvation through punk rock. Throughout, Clare is his indulgent witness, the one who prays for him and keeps him company in the grungiest of clubs.
Early on, Clare clues us in to a seminal moment in Francis' life when, at 12, he experiences a blissed-out state at Easter Mass in their home parish in Cincinnati. "His eyes are wide open, he's looking heavenward, and he has this big smile on his face. He's male, he's in color, and there's no spotlight on his face, but otherwise he looks just like the girl in 'Song of Bernadette.' " When Clare grabs his hand, she feels a physical jolt. This moment becomes the secret they share, a touchstone of their faith.
Several years later, back from college in Boston for Christmas break, Clare watches Francis plant himself at Dee Dee's feet during his first Ramones concert. From then on, they also share a taste for punk and other kinds of rock.
As the two grow older, Clare becomes an emergency room nurse in Boston, marries and has two children, and shifts to hospice care. Francis follows her to Boston, where he works with youth groups and for the archdiocese. Their parents depart for Latin America to do volunteer work, leaving Francis to depend on Clare for emotional support. Francis falls in love with Lourdes, a Puerto Rican doctor. ("[S]he's said 'Ramones' like it's a Spanish word -- 'HDDRRamonace,' "Clare observes.) They marry and are preparing to start a family when tragedy strikes: Lourdes suffers a brain aneurysm and dies within days.
Francis shocks guests at the funeral with his withering responses to their comforting phrases. Clare comes to the rescue, escorting him to the basement to listen to Motorhead and pointing out that he is inconsolable and "doesn't seem to be in total control of his mouth."
After the funeral, Francis can barely leave his basement, where he flips the TV channels endlessly. He has turned his back on religion (he takes out a classified ad that reads, "St. Jude -- Thanks for nothing, you old fraud.... " When he sees on the news that a local priest he had reported to the cardinal -- to no avail -- has been arraigned on 14 counts of sexual assault on a minor, he resigns his administrative job with the archdiocese in anger. Clare finds him a bereavement therapist. Month by month, Francis moves back into the world. Clare's love for her brother and her sense of perspective help. "Three more long months pass. I wish I could say that the therapy helps tremendously, but the obvious gains stop with Francis wearing real clothes every day."
His first step out of the vortex of grief is to fall for a punk rocker 12 years his junior who used to be in his youth group. "I can't quite figure out how [her jeans] are staying up and covering everything pants need to cover when they are riding so very low," Clare muses when they meet. This nearly ludicrous twist slides on by because of Clare's disarming loyalty. She comes along with Francis to watch his new crush perform. "I find my black boots, and I cram my enormous butt into the rattiest jeans I have. I put on a black bra and dig through the 'painting clothes' pile and find a Ramones shirt.... I am afraid I look like somebody's mother trying to be cool, which is I suppose what I am."
Clare is the only one who understands when Francis, spurned by the younger woman, pursues his own punk rock vision. She even accompanies him to a tattoo parlor and to his own maiden performances in an unexpected venue. Her salty comments and occasional spluttering assaults on baby brother seem perfectly timed to keep the novel from turning maudlin, even as another family tragedy looms. Thanks to Halpin's creation of the sympathetic Clare, "Long Way Back" is a moving, near effortless read.
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire."