“Setting Free the Kites”
Author: Alex George
Price: $27.00 (Hardcover)
Lawyers who write fiction are not rare. Alex George, however, is a slightly different breed. George, an Englishman, studied law at Oxford, practiced for some eight years in London and Paris, writing all the while, and then in 2003 emigrated to the United States, to Missouri, where he continued lawyering and writing. His first American novel was, not surprisingly, a novel of migration.
“A Good American” tells the story of Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer, from Hanover, Germany, who in 1904 fall in love, emigrate, and make a new life, rather arbitrarily, in Missouri. George follows the family through four generations as they adjust and then prosper in their new home, buying a tavern, then with the coming of prohibition, turning it into a restaurant. Their descendants pursue various careers but the family has a gift for music, from Italian opera in Europe to Dixieland jazz, to a barbershop quartet in Missouri.
Now George has a brand new novel, again a family story, again with music occupying an important place, but this is a very different family and very different music.
“Setting Free the Kites” is set on the Maine coast in the 1970s over two summers, told in a flashback from forty-plus years afterwards.
Robert Carter, a 13-year-old boy, has more to deal with than any boy should have.
As the novel opens he is dreading the start of school, where he will be bullied by Hollis Calhoun, a thick-headed lout, but one with “a nuanced understanding of the psychological mechanics of terror.”
This fall, however, the new boy at school, Nathan Tilly, physically no bigger than Robert, steps in when Robert is being swirled in the boys bathroom, and defends him.
They become best friends. We meet Nathan’s family: his father makes beautiful kites and then, as they soar, cuts the line, setting them free. Nathan’s mother sits in the back room, smoking furiously and typing. Late in the novel we are told WHAT she is typing and it is a nice surprise.
Robert and Nathan have a boys-book relationship—flying kites, riding bikes, but mostly exploring an abandoned mill they manage to get into.
But of course, the idyll cannot be perfect. Nathan’s life is disrupted by his father’s sudden death, while Robert’s older brother Liam is dying of muscular dystrophy. Although Liam is an extraordinarily brave soul, the stress on the family is intense, family dynamics skewed and damaged. Robert’s father is destroyed because he cannot be the superhero he wants to be, cannot defeat the “forces of evil” and protect his family. Mrs. Carter prays, then rages and grieves. As to Robert: he feels sad, but also ignored. His parents have nothing left for him.
In his last days, Liam finds consolation in punk rock, at ear-splitting decibels. After Liam’s death Robert does the same, explaining the odd therapeutic effect of The Ramones this way: “That blistering eruption of sound cauterized my hurt, numbed me into oblivion and, just for a little while, made everything feel not quite so bad.”
The Carters run an Arthurian-themed amusement park, “Fun-A-Lot,” and Robert and Nathan will work there summers, cooking, and wearing the mascot outfit, a dragon. Robert loves it and comes to know the handyman Lewis Jenks, who introduces him to bebop, which at first he doesn’t like any better than punk.
Robert and Nathan, though close, are not alike. Robert, our narrator, is a sensible boy, earthbound, while Nathan is a spirit meant to soar. Robert describes him as all hope, knowing no fear. (Nathan falls desperately in love with an older woman—she is fifteen, and will not be convinced he has no chance.) He feels exempt from rules, including gravity. Nathan is obsessed with flight: with kites, the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel, or the wings of Daedalus.
These attempts can end badly, but a boy must try.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.