Ed Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, features a late-night shooting in a house that’s allegedly haunted, a woman in her late twenties seducing a teenage boy in a hayloft, a bride suffering a convulsive bout of insanity during her wedding vows, and a spectacularly gruesome double murder—which makes it all the more remarkable that the novel’s most engrossing facet is the relationship between the narrator and his older brother, the quiet and tender bromance Tarkington stitches into all that gothic drama.
The novel begins in Spencerville, Virginia, in 1977. We know we’re in 1970s Virginia because just about everyone is smoking cigarettes just about all the time. (Not since Larry Brown’s Joe has a novel gassed its readers with this much secondhand smoke.) Tarkington nails down such a wide scree of other details—the wiggly routes that gossip used to take in small towns, for instance, or the infinitesimal degrees of class distinction in Virginia—that his depiction of the Upper South during the Carter years feels deep and unsimulated; his characters feel planted in bona fide Virginia clay.
Chief among them is Richard “Rocky” Askew, who is eight years old when we meet him, and in thrall to his half brother Paul, then sixteen. “From as early as I can remember,” Rocky tells us, he would escape to Paul’s bedroom where together they “would stretch across the width of his bed, gazing out his windows across the yard to a broad, grassy knoll in the distance, atop which sat the old white-columned estate house known as Twin Oaks.” Paul Askew, with his “crooked smile and breezy air” and free-range hair “that he’d never combed in his life,” drives a muscle car and blasts Pink Floyd and Ted Nugent and generally maintains an “effortlessly cool” glow that serves as a lodestar for his little brother. Tarkington cribbed the novel’s title from Neil Young’s 1970 song of the same name, whose most haunting refrain goes like this: “What if your world should fall apart?” Rocky’s world does just that when, two years later, during a visit home from college, a troubled Paul tries to exact revenge upon their father by abandoning Rocky in the woods—and then tracelessly disappears.
It does potential readers no disservice to reveal that Paul’s absence, while long, isn’t permanent. Until Paul’s return, however, Tarkington heaps more trouble upon Rocky as the novel ripens into a bildungsroman of the Great Expectations model. Rocky’s innocence falls prey to Patricia Culver, whose parents own Twin Oaks. Their affair sets into motion a cascade of plot twists that can sometimes feel as unruly as a nest of backlashed fishing line. Paul’s high school girlfriend, the mentally unbalanced Leigh Bowman, marries Patricia’s brother Charles in one of Spencerville’s more memorable weddings, and Rocky’s father goes into business—disastrously—with Patricia’s father. Then comes Paul, the prodigal son. And then comes bloodshed.
Like all great narrators, Rocky is a key participant in these events as well as an outside observer—the sun describing the solar system as though it were Pluto. Tarkington’s writing is talky, devoid of flash, and calls to mind a young Pat Conroy; an elegiac tone adds some pastel color, but propulsion is its primary attribute. Not mere plot propulsion—though there’s plenty of that, especially after the corpses turn up—but emotional propulsion: Tarkington’s fidelity to period and place is matched by his fidelity to human contradictions, to the gray area between heroism and villainy in which most of us reside.
The gothic elements add spice, but the protein in this assured debut—the part that sticks to your ribs—is the beautiful but ever-threatened connection between Rocky and Paul. Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a novel about brotherhood, most of all, about the delicate fortress of that bond. As Rocky observes, while helping Paul in his woodworking shop: “When people build something together—be it abstract or physical, spiritual or material—the circle closes around them.”