REVIEW Innocence lost in sultry summer
The tragic events of 'Sweet Dream Baby' are finely crafted.
By JOHN HARPER
"Sweet Dream Baby" by Sterling Watson; Sourcebooks Landmark ($22).
In "Sweet Dream Baby," Sterling Watson, author of "The Calling," investigates what it's like for a 12-year-old boy to grow from innocence to accountability in the course of a single sweltering summer. It takes only three short months for young Travis to learn about jealousy, lust and obsession in the small, gossipy town of Widow Rock, but when it's finally time for him to go, he knows way more about all three than a 12-year-old should.
The awakening begins when he is shipped off to his grandparents' house in the Florida Panhandle. Because Travis' grandfather is the local sheriff and his grandmother a maternal, fussy woman of upper-crust sensibility, there is no reason to think his stay will be made up of anything more than the humidity, heat and afternoon thunderstorms.
Then Travis' Aunt Delia, 16 going on 25, blows into his life like a tropical hurricane. Wearing white sneakers with pink laces and sporting a smile that looks just like "the sunrise over the wheat fields back in Omaha," she can dominate a room by just walking into it.
She calls Travis' stern, Southern grandfather "Daddy-o," and the old man melts like an ice cube in the hot Florida sun. And when she presses the soft skin of her cheek against his, Travis instantly "goes strange and soft all over" and knows he's going to like his aunt "a lot."
Almost immediately, the pair become inseparable. They go skinny-dipping in the local river. They skip church to practice what Delia calls "religious freedom." They drive like heat lightning down the rural country roads late at night because "there is nothing else to do."
In time, their fierce attachment to each other will morph into trouble bigger than either one of them could anticipate, leading to an end that is as sad as it is tragic.
Watson, who teaches at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, has spent a lifetime perfecting his craft. From adroit patterns of action, such as Travis' assault on Delia's boyfriend as he attempts to "get to third base," to the selective use of rock 'n' roll songs to intensify the emotion of a particular scene, Watson knows all the tricks of good writing.
In the early going, he perhaps spends too much time disclaiming Travis' adult thoughts -- sometimes the early, "innocent" Travis reminds one of the main character in "Flowers for Algernon" before he got smart. But this does not detract from the overall power and force of an otherwise compelling book.
"Sweet Dream Baby" could have been just one more cautionary tale. Instead, it is a comprehensive work of art that is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing. Somehow, the plot, the characters, the very ambience of Widow Rock, swim into one's veins like a haunting Roy Orbison song, leaving one to feel as if the novel was written down in the great book of life even before the first word was typed on the printed page.