by Knopf, $8.95
Outside Atlantic City’s Convention Hall, forty-eight would-be Miss Americas smile their perfect smiles from blown-up photographs. Five times a day a white horse dives magnificently from the end of the Steel Pier. At night, colored lights play on the fountain outside the Claridge, and Irving Berlin’s music pours out of the Ritz. The guests at Sloan’s Hotel move in sluggish ritual from beach to dining room and back, surrendering gratefully to what they have come for, “a calm as binding as eternity.”
It is late August 1939. As the German army prepares to invade Poland, Teddy Lewin, aged fourteen, is losing his last defenses against adulthood. Earnest, sensitive, and slight, he clings to symbols of order–his music, memorized statistics– while envying all those around him who seem untouched by fear or doubt. Then, gradually, his child’s delight in the cotton-candy world of the boardwalk fades with the crumbling of illusion: the future Miss America is an awkward girl rehearsing her walk; the white horse dives from fear of an electric prod. And those self-contained figures in the pageantry of Sloan’s are flawed and vulnerable, struggling to cope with their own versions of reality. Teddy learns to draw strength, a sense of his separateness, from his very recognition of the weakness in others.
Robert Kotlowitz artfully recreates the tinny pomp of Atlantic City and its lazy assault on the senses, a setting in which Teddv’s moments of awareness stand out with affecting clarity. Refreshingly unencumbered by adolescent theatrics, he is (no small accomplishment in fiction) a likable boy.