City of Boys

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Beth Nugent’s characters are adolescents and young adults already aware that they are about to inherit an eerie world, a frightening, potentially dangerous habitat. Like the girl in the title story who has fled her overbearing mother and small-town life, only to find herself imprisoned by the cloying adoration of an older woman who “saves” her from the New York City streets, Nugent’s characters long for the warmth and safety of home. Yet they are wise; they come to know that the familiar hearth they desire does not exist. At the heart of all that is familial — home, routines, sibling love and family outings — they find always something rotten, something weirdly amiss or unfathomable.

A college freshman in “At the End of My Life” is made responsible for abandoning her strange yet beloved younger brother at a school for disturbed youth. Leaving him, she says, “I have reached the end of my life.” But her new life is haunted by his oddness and love. In “Cocktail Hour” a young girl whose family moves every year befriends a firestarter whose actions become a metaphor for her own emerging rage. Both girls uncannily recognize the subterfuge at work beneath adult civility. “Riding into Day” charts a family’s foray into dangerous emotional territory, as they travel three days by train across the Midwest.

The world of the family in a Nugent story has cracks becoming violent fissures. The adults and the young live together but run on different tracks. The adults preserve their trances of appearance, their warped and dogged optimism; the young observe, report, and react. Thus the reader witnesses disturbing private events — unnerving because they unfold in recognizable milieus under seemingly normal circumstances. Beth Nugent anchors her surrealism with powerful storytelling and style.