Now there’s a title certain to be mangled in bookshops throughout the land and a brave one for a debut. I wonder if Judy Chicurel’s publishers tried to talk her out of it. It’s the title of the final chapter of the book whose meaning becomes clear towards its end. Set in the summer of 1972, If I Knew… is narrated by Katie, the adopted daughter of a white-collar family who spends her time in Elephant Beach’s rundown Comanche Street, a district frequented by drunks and druggies.
Already long past its glory days as a glamorous Long Island resort, Elephant Beach – like the rest of America – is in the grips of recession. Times are hard, money is tight and the Vietnam War still rages. Besotted with the reclusive Luke, back from the war and grappling with the aftermath, Katie waits for life to happen to her while watching it pick up her friends and shake them around: Marcel has taken off with her boyfriend, fleeing her parents’ unhappiness; Liz and Nanny take up with useless men – one a chancer, the other a stoner; Georgie gets beaten up because he’s gay despite the protection of the ferocious Feeney sisters. She talks to Mitch, the Purple Heart whose leg was shot to pieces in Vietnam, hoping to find a way to Luke but making a friend instead. All through the long summer after graduation, Katie longs for Luke, holds her friends hands through their troubles, quarrels with her mother, hangs out at the Starlight Lounge and drinks chocolate egg creams at Eddy’s. By the end of it she finally comes into herself.
At first I was a little disappointed at what I took to be Chicurel’s bitty style. Marketed as a novel in this country, it’s described as a ‘debut collection’ on her website however ‘episodic’ best fits it for me particularly as it’s strikingly cinematic at times, ripe for adaptation by HBO or the like. Chicurel has a nice feel for characterisation – the larger than life Feeney sisters, aka the Hitters, are nicely balanced by the likes of Mitch, coolly sage yet self-destructive. The intensity of Katie’s passion for Luke is thoroughly convincing in all its romantic teenage naïveté. Elephant Beach is grungy in a ‘seen better days’ kind of way while the effects of the Vietnam War and its cast aside blue-collar vets, left to cope the best they can, are well drawn. What ever you choose to call it – linked short stories or novel – the small-town American setting with its tight-knit group of characters at its core drew me in and kept me engrossed to the end.