Ray Bradbury is best remembered as a writer of fantasy and science fiction, whose stories often took huge ideas and grappled with them by inventing fantastic worlds and creatures. But he was also the master of the small and quiet, someone whose observation of human tics and traits served him well in stories where the action might never extend past the reaches of a small, sleepy Midwestern town.
It’s fiction like Bradbury’s small town stories that came to mind reading The Far End of the Park by James Casper. Like Bradbury, his narrative compellingly and vividly evokes the anxious years of youth when boys and girls begin to transition to adulthood, and the comforting world around them begins to take on new shape and meaning as their point of view shifts.
The storyline in Casper’s novel isn’t packed with breathless drama. It gives a slice of life, but one where—to the young protagonist Jude—what could seem like small stakes to a seasoned adult become larger than life and fraught with disaster. Accidentally carrying a mildly embarrassing book out of the school library, having to encounter an unpleasant landlord, being caught eavesdropping on a neighbor: Casper makes us feel acutely the panic and social awkwardness of a teenage boy.
Jude and his widowed mother, hard up for money, move into a ramshackle summer resort during the off-season. As part of the conditions for living in a rundown cabin, Jude is tasked with helping maintain the other cabins. Harmon, the intimidating retired wrestler who owns the park, also demands that Jude help keep an eye on Miss Thorpe, a seldom-seen singer who stays in one cabin at the far end. Harmon fears she will skip out on rent and wants a warning if it seems she may try to leave.
As is often the case with children from “odd” families or unusual circumstances, Jude finds himself the target of bullying at school. Between that, trying to avoid Harmon, and the overwhelming attentions of an eccentric couple who try to help his mother from time to time, Jude retreats into solitary reveries and the comfort of literature. It’s in his solitary moments that he also finds himself attracted to the voice he hears from Miss Thorpe’s cabin as she practices her singing.
Storms, a wildfire, and revelations about a book bearing Jude’s late father’s signature lead to a quiet resolution. The paradox of small events spurring large changes is something which should be familiar to anyone who remembers their teenage years, and as you read Casper’s prose, you may end up recollecting—as I did—many of those small but large events.
The Far End of the Park is self-published and has a few of the drawbacks that entails: some formatting errors and typos which would likely have been caught by a professional editing and typesetting job. But these don’t detract from the enjoyment derived from this novel. Fans of James Casper’s other novel Everywhere in Chains or anyone who enjoys a good coming of age story should seek this quiet novel out.