Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646
Clinton Williams is fourteen years old. His brother, Berry-Berry, is away “on his travels,” begun shortly after his twenty-first birthday. The Williams family recently moved into a house in a different section of Cleveland. Clinton is afraid that Berry-Berry will not be able to find the new house if he should return, and as a gesture of quiet protest he stays away from school for fifty-seven consecutive days. In the daytime, he loafs in the Aloha Sweet Shop, recording in his notebooks everything he sees or overhears. At home he eavesdrops on his parents’ conversations, which he records in his journals as well, along with copies of letters he opens on the sly. During the time he is skipping school, he fills twenty-five notebooks. His entries are naïve, funny, boring, and revealing. His romantic view of Berry-Berry is the first interest of Clinton’s life. The second is his tremendous curiosity about people and the nature of experience, explaining his effort to put down everything he knows and learns in order that he might solve some of life’s mysteries.
In many ways, Clinton is his father’s son. Ralph Williams was a politically active liberal before he was trapped by marriage and a family. Theoretically he is in business, but he spends most of his time in the cellar with a jigsaw puzzle in front of him and a bottle of bourbon within reach. He simplifies his life to two convictions: that Christ founded the Socialist Party and that Berry-Berry will turn out all right in the end. His wife, Annabel, is nervous, querulous, and tearful, constantly wishing for Berry-Berry’s return without ever realizing that he hates her.
The memory of the absent son is all that holds the strange family together. Ironically, Berry-Berry is unworthy of his family’s love and their hopes for his return. A bum, a pimp, and a sadist, he turns up first in one section of the country, then in another, in jail and out, either living off one of his women or else calling on his family for money to get him out of his latest escapade. Most of these facts are unknown to Clinton, however, during the time he is working in an all-night eating place and saving his money for the day when he might join his brother. The opportunity comes when Berry-Berry writes, asking his father for two hundred dollars to invest in a shrimping venture in Key Bonita, Florida. Ready to offer the money, Clinton takes a bus to Key Bonita, to find on his arrival that Berry-Berry already skipped town after mauling one of his lady loves. This knowledge comes to Clinton during the night he spends with a prostitute, and the realization of his brother’s true nature is almost more than he can bear. He returns home, falls ill, and even contemplates suicide. He is saved when he falls shyly in love with Echo O’Brien, older than he and the daughter of one of his mother’s friends, who comes to visit in Cleveland.
Berry-Berry returns and all is forgotten, or at least forgiven, and the Williamses are reunited by love. Berry-Berry makes a play for Echo. His parents hope that the affair will cause Berry-Berry to settle down at last. Clinton accepts the fact of Echo’s romance with his brother out of gratitude for the atmosphere of family happiness. Berry-Berry, however, cannot be reclaimed from the moral rot that infects him. Refusing to accept responsibility for Echo’s pregnancy, he callously discards her, and Echo commits suicide. Clinton at first intends to kill his brother, but in the end, he decides that Berry-Berry’s knowledge of his own corruption is punishment enough. Berry-Berry takes to the road again. Clinton begins writing in his notebooks once more, with the difference that, he believes, he has grown up.
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