Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman | Content Warnings: Attempted suicide
A smartly indelicate fiction exploring every aspect of a boy’s weird trauma
To Refrain From Embracing is a pensive and provocative novel by Jeffrey Luscombe. Set in the summer of 1977 in Canada, much of the novel involves suicidal male patients bantering in a psychiatric hospital, and gradually the story expands to reveal the lives of their families.
At first, the story seems to be about Ted Moore, who’d enlisted at 17, became a UN Peacekeeper in the Congo, and recently self-injured in front of his 10-year-old son. “I don’t consider it my best hour,” he admits of his suicide attempt, “but that’s what happened and that’s that.” In a more honest moment, he’s ready to admit that he suffers from intrusive thoughts. One of his conversation partners is a fellow patient who, though also Canadian, had enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in Vietnam.
As the novel doggedly leads us into the woods, the drama recenters onto Ted’s son, Josh. Josh befriends an older neighborhood boy who is able to defend his own fort playhouse by the creek. The way to impress this boy is to divulge a really good secret. Fortunately (or not), Josh has a few of those.
A big achievement of this novel is how it investigates overlapping strands of identity. Josh’s mother grew up on a reservation in Minnesota, and his Aunt Doris in particular values her Indian heritage. On his father’s side, his aunts are fanatical born-again Christians. One of the aunts tells his father while he’s in the psychiatric hospital: “When God wants to get your attention, first He’ll begin with a tap on your shoulder…then a thump…and then eventually He’ll have to resort to a two-by-four across the back of your head.”
So, who might Josh grow up to become? He’s an outlier in his family: the only one of the younger generation to have blond hair, and a kid who’s more interested in macabre news stories than in religion. His family bickers and grumbles about adult matters, and we catch scraps of it, either in passing or as Josh might have half-understood it.
Most of the men in this place and time are anxious about sexual encounters with other men, which do seem to occur with some frequency but which they tend to keep secret. The family projects their sexual anxieties onto Josh. Because he appears to them as soft-bellied and inadequately masculine, he’s sent off to summer camp.
With a “that’s when it happened,” the story unveils surprise traumas: panties swiped off the clothesline by a neighborhood pervert, graphic death, what happened to the puppy, and everything in between. Often the reader doesn’t see it coming, and these existential indignities are scripted to an effect that’s at once horrible and comic. More than one character’s narrative purpose is to die.
It’s a twisted tale with touching moments that are meant to feel awkward. To Refrain From Embracing is an apt title insofar as the novel is about people who spend more time trying to control themselves and each other than to listen and connect. As might be expected for such a disastrous summer (were it to happen in real life), many threads don’t wrap up. It would take a lifetime for Josh to figure out, and we only get the snapshot of the summer when he was 10.
Luscombe keeps piquing our curiosity into this weird kid born into an even weirder family, and he weaves an elaborately detailed world that’s ultimately left open-ended. He gives us an extended peepshow of Josh’s formative—perhaps de-formative—year.
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