Some generations fare better than others at labeling. Tucked in between "The Greatest Generation," which won World War II, and its "Baby-Boomer" children is one of the losers - the generation that grew to adulthood in the 1950s.
But if the young people of that era - and the grandparents they have become - lacked a defining label, they do not lack defining voices. One such voice belongs to Peter Anastas of Gloucester, Mass., whose new coming-of-age novel, "No Fortunes," winningly portrays a boy stretching his way to manhood at Bowdoin College in 1959.
It's one of the best books I've read all year.
For anyone reading "No Fortunes" in Maine, the sense of place is overwhelming. Brunswick lives and breathes on its pages, not just in the street names but in the tensions and pleasures of campus life and the sense of a community divided between the college boys (students are male only in 1959) and those who live in the "other" Brunswick.
Beyond that, if you remember the '50s on a college campus like Bowdoin, you will see its young people again, hear their voices, feel their passion and share their impatience as they wait for the world of the Eisenhower Era to catch up to their inchoate ambitions.
If you don't have memories of your own, Anastas will create them for you, giving readers a compelling look into the life of high-achieving Bowdoin seniors and, through his eyes, tells the stories - some loving, some tragic - of his closest friends.
Anastas, a scholarship student from Gloucester, attended Bowdoin during the time of his story and he remembers its outer - and inner - workings well. Always, too, there are intimations of world-changing events that will come after these young men leave the Brunswick campus.
At a memorial service for a Bowdoin friend, who thought and felt his way through mysticism to revolution, Anastas' hero, Jason Makrides, speaks of the years ahead:
"Ours is not a very political generation," he tells the audience of friends and family. "We came to college to prepare ourselves not for a life of learnng how to change the world, but for one of earning a good living in the world as we found it. If we are ever going to become political, I suspect that it will not be in the conventional way of ballots and elections, but more like the way Frank had the courage to choose, the way of direct action."
Welcome, folks, to the 1960s, the 1970s and all the years since.
Even as the young men of Bowdoin look at the world, however, they also look into themselves, weighing their loves, their duties and their longings.
"My father will probably never speak to me again," moans a young man named Henri St. Pierre. "All he's talked about for four years at the fire station is me going to medical school like my uncle did, a poor French Canadian boy making good. Now I've dashed his dreams. How can he tell those guys his son wants to be an actor in New York City?"
It's a them-or-me choice several of the young men, the first in their working-class families to go to college, must confront. Before they can tell anyone else how they plan to live their lives, however, the young heroes of Anastas' book must tell themselves.
They must confront the pressure of choice - how much to sacrifice to help a friend, whether to stay with a soulmate or pursue study in Europe, how to confront time and the threat it poses to fulfillment, and, most of all, how to know with any degree of certainty the adult they're meant to be and the world they're meant to live in.
Anastas gives them a vibrant world in which to make their choices. He arms them well with characterization. And he places them in beautifully evoked settings, from make-out parties and the rigors of scholarly exams at Bowdoin to the glow of Cezannes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the noisy working wharves of Gloucester and the quiet of that hushed memorial service.
If I have any quarrel with "No Fortunes," it is a small one. The title strikes me as a needless barrier to the book. Read as part of a powerful thought by Henry James, "There are no fortunes to be told; there is no advice to be given," the comment has meaning. Used alone, however, it hangs on the book's cover like a "No Trespassing" sign, evoking little and enticing a reader even less.
That's too bad. What's inside these pages is a delight as a generation worth knowing speaks for itself.