Hugh Welch is a typical American male of the early 1960’s. He loves sports, cars, and girls--in that order. In college, he is unable to pass a single test, but he plays hockey so well that the coach accuses him of trying to make the rest of the team look bad. He flunks out in his second year and returns to his hometown in Michigan to sell Buicks, cars he believes in wholeheartedly.
Hugh’s sister Dorsey, on the other hand, is the town “brain.” She has few friends and even fewer dates. Dorsey’s big moment of adolescent rebellion occurs when her mother refuses to buy her a telephone of her own. Dorsey simply repairs a broken one and installs it herself. After she is graduated at the top of her high school class, she leaves Michigan to study astrophysics at a California university. There she has a brief affair with her physics professor, an aging eccentric who worked on the Manhattan Project during the war. The professor considers J. Robert Oppenheimer the greatest American of the twentieth century, and he courts Dorsey with snippets of Oppenheimer’s bad poetry. Their relationship ends when Dorsey discovers that she is pregnant. Shortly thereafter, she marries a philandering stage actor who picks her up in a grocery store. He seems to like children.
Hugh has a family of his own, but life revolves around Dorsey. He has never forgotten the promise he made to his parents to look after her, and she has never stopped regarding him as her godlike big brother.
Charles Baxter tells his story in reverse chronological order, beginning with the characters’ middle-age years and moving backward to childhood. This is an interesting but hardly innovative technique, one that has been used most notably by Harold Pinter in his marital drama BETRAYAL. Moreover, as a celebration of small-town life and blue-collar values, FIRST LIGHT strongly recalls the work of novelist Anne Tyler, whose prose style Baxter seems to emulate. Still, this is a warm and delicate book, not breath-takingly original but nevertheless quite compelling. It is also one of the few works of contemporary literature that one could give to ones’ grandparents from Michigan without fear of offending them.