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Surface Tension: A Novel in Four Summers    by Brent Runyon order for
Surface Tension
by Brent Runyon
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2009 (2009)
*   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Protagonist Luke is portrayed during two weeks of summer vacation at ages thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. To reach the cottage, the family drives hundreds of miles from their home town. Luke can visualize the landscape with his eyes closed, every turn and landmark. The scenery may change as does his age, but Luke sees the serene location - with its constants of water and greenery - as a place to diminish his worries, and just be.

'Here we are. We're back. It feels like it's been forever and no time at all. I jump out of the car, take my shoes off, and spring down to the lake.' Luke's focus is the beach, with so much to do in only two weeks. His list includes perfecting rock-skipping over the water; finding a lucky stone; running barefoot to toughen his feet; training for his merit badge by swimming underwater thirty-five feet; practicing soccer; and doing assigned summer reading. Luke loves to read, but dislikes reading things that others want him to read.

In his fourteenth summer, Luke notices changes: the power station pollution; the once graceful mansion now run down; the dairy farm sold and the rumor is that it will become a winery. A new tenant occupies one cottage - a minister from West Virginia who displays a Confederate flag to Luke's parents' consternation. The minister has two Labrador retrievers running loose. When Mr. Richardson arrives at his place, he immediately spots the dogs' excrement on his meticulous lawn, but scoops it up and dumps it on the minister's property. At the annual 'Old-Time baseball goodness', a girl with long black hair and huge eyes catches Luke's attention. The following summer he notices Sophie even more as she saunters toward the water - he thinks 'when did she grow up?'

At age fifteen, friend Steve is allowed to join Luke for the first time. Steve's parents just divorced and he has gained a sarcastic attitude. Playing a game of soccer Luke kicks the ball too high, hitting Richardson's window, damaging the screen - not a good vacation start. Then there's the continuing issue of the minister's Confederate flag still up from last summer. The adults in the vacation area vote to party, and to get under the minister's skin they supply loud music, plus shine all the lights available (even on vehicles) in the direction of his house. Luke and Steve sneak a few beers; they decide to make a schematic of a cross on a lawn with bleach.

Luke is in his sixteenth year when he earns a driver learning permit, and Dad's style of driving gets on his nerves. There are even more landscape changes a barn torn down; the mansion repainted; the tepee-shaped house has an overgrown yard, and the farm did become a winery. Jennifer (from his hometown) is Luke's girlfriend; she's at summer theater camp, and he misses her. When he phones Jennifer, a friend tells him she's out. Luke's imagination takes over about what the love of his life is up to. Out? Where? With whom? A night swim is the answer, 'I keep going up to my chest and then slip underwater, so slowly that the surface tension makes the water feel like mercury.'

Brent Runyon's Surface Tension has a promising start and then falters as the tone becomes smart-alecky, crude and raw in places. The redeeming factors are Luke's steady narration, in the mode of a written letter, sometimes joyful, and sometimes painful. The final chapters are the real eye openers as the story ends in fire and smoke - literally. For some reason, Runyon leaves many unanswered questions, assuming the reader will figure out why, where, what, and when. But I never did and still ponder.

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