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Review: A boy's narrow shoulders carry family in John DuFresne's 'Requiem, Mass.'

The characters populating Requiem, Mass., John Dufresne's latest novel, are the sort of people you meet in an Augusten Burroughs memoir. They are unconsciously eccentric, hold to a questionable moral philosophy and sometimes land on the wrong side of crazy. The novel calls up Burroughs' Running With Scissors with its premise as well, but there's a big difference between the works of these two writers.

Requiem, Mass. concerns John, a middle-aged writing professor and novelist who recounts the experience of watching his mother lose her grip on reality. John's story begins in 1968, when he is 12. His mother, Frances, has already suffered two breakdowns and teeters on the precipice of a third. With her truck driver husband often (supposedly) on the road, Frances becomes incapable of caring for her two children and accuses them of being imposters — impersonating her real kids.

Dufresne, who teaches writing at Florida International University, finds humor in people's peculiarities. Part of the fun is in John's description of Catholic school, where the nuns wield Little Town of Bethlehem snow globes like weapons and incite giggles by asking students to recite their "ejaculations." Frances' behavior, like her penchant for homemade Kotex slippers, and a long list of minor characters, including "a bartender who only ever talked about two things: the Red Sox and people who should be shot," will generate laughs as well.

At its center, though, the book is about a boy struggling with the impossible task of holding his family together. John covers for Frances creatively, but a boy can maintain only so tight a grip when he has to wrap his mother's wounds after she carves her husband's name into her arm. In these instances, Dufresne gives his characters a sense of humanity missing from similar coming-of-age stories. Whereas authors like Burroughs supposedly compose nonfiction, Dufresne's novel carries the stronger ring of truth.

Vikas Turakhia teaches English in Ohio.

Requiem, Mass.

By John Dufresne

W.W. Norton, 352 pages, $24.95

Review: A boy's narrow shoulders carry family in John DuFresne's 'Requiem, Mass.' 08/16/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 16, 2008 4:30am]

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