Dean Bakopoulos knows things.
"I know loneliness sends us into dark places. I know the day-to-day sadness most of us have to battle on a regular basis sometimes makes us be with people we normally wouldn't choose," he writes, 58 pages into his moving debut novel "Please Don't Come Back From the Moon."
Twenty-four-year-old Bakopoulos knows about the hidden fears that motivate men to do unspeakable things, about the forces that drive them away from sad places like Maple Rock, Mich. But most of all, as a young author from a family much like the one in his book, he knows how to describe it all with genuine grace and simplicity.
The story begins in an unlikely way, with the sudden disappearance of an entire town's fathers. They leave explanations for leaving the working class town scribbled on notes and hung on refrigerator doors: They had, quite simply, gone to the moon. In their absence, the boys of Maple Rock must become men on their own and learn the harsh economic and social realities of Michigan's post-industrial landscape. It's quite sprawling, following the protagonist Michael Smolij from age 15 to his early 30s. But at just under 300 pages, it reads quickly.
Part of the beauty in this book is that it can be read in so many different ways. It could be an allegory for the industrial decline of the northeastern United States. It could be a character study in abandonment or a street-spoken musing on the heartbreaking results of a fatherless post-adolescence. It is in fact all these things, which is quite an accomplishment, not only for a first novel, but any book at all.
The plight of Maple Rock's children, at least allegorically, is familiar to rustbelt towns like Buffalo or Detroit -- those places heavy with the feeling of faded glory, of a landscape unremarkable and post-industrial and tragic. Maple Rock could easily double for Lackawanna or even Cheektowaga (when the economy goes south, the mall in Maple Rock becomes the town's major employer). Readers in this area of the country can identify with Bakopoulos' descriptions of the town's bleak existence, the local joints with regulars who remember how great the place used to be, even the Polish last names.
Though the writing is at times somewhat sophomoric, especially in the first 50 pages, there is something undeniably alluring about the story and the way it is told, from the perspective of Michael, a boy who aspires to make something of his life in spite of terribly unfair odds. After a few chapters, though, the writing really picks up, with some very concise descriptions and turns of phrase that portend much for this writer. We, the readers, get to see what impossible futures the boys of Maple Rock have imagined, and when we see how they slowly erode into the cold machinations of Maple Rock's reality, our hearts could break as well.
As Michael comes of age, he learns by himself about sex and love, about the value of college, about why men become violent. But as teen soap opera as the description might sound, it seems genuine.
This is a book about impossible escapes -- from Maple Rock or Buffalo -- to a phantom destination, the moon or a perfect life. The fathers have disappeared presumably because Maple Rock offered little in the way of hope -- either because it used to be great, or because of the workings of modern politics and its resultant lack of opportunity. When the call of the moon confronts their children, after the loss has faded, they battle with it the same way their fathers did. But in the end, the children stay in Maple Rock with their new families.
Michael Smolij can leave Maple Rock, but he cannot run away from his life. And neither can we.
Please Don't Come Back from the Moon
By Dean Bakopoulos
270 pages, $23
Colin Dabkowski is a frequent News reviewer.