When readers first meet Owen Webb, the first-person narrator of “All the Castles Burned,” he is shooting baskets in the small gym of Rockcastle Preparatory Academy, an elite institution in Cincinnati.
By the time this memorable debut novel ends, shooting has taken on a whole new meaning.
Under the tutelage and the irresistible charm of upperclassman Carson Bly, Webb becomes a focus of the Rockcastle basketball squad and is introduced to the finer things of life that his own lower-middle-class family can only dream about, if he has heard of them at all.
But Bly has a dark side that Webb is slow to notice, even though Webb’s mother seems to sense it immediately. After she meets Bly, she turns to her son and says, “There’s nothing behind his friendliness, is there?” Another character in the novel compares Bly to Eddie Haskell of “Leave It to Beaver” fame, which is kind of an insult to Haskell, whose smarm had no dark side to it.
Novelist Michael Nye neatly juxtaposes the lives of the two students: Webb, who is a scholarship student at Rockcastle, and Bly, whose family has a big house, big money and big connections far beyond southern Ohio.
To call Bly mercurial would be an understatement. Sometimes, he is Webb’s best buddy, eager to be his guide to life. Other times, he is distant, making himself scarce for weeks at a time.
Nye, who earned his MFA at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is the former managing editor of the Missouri Review, paints a vivid portrait of Cincinnati in the mid-1990s, using music, video games and popular mall stores like Benetton and Sam Goody to establish a convincing sense of place.
The plot unfolds slowly — perhaps too slowly for some readers — as Nye goes into detail about individual basketball games, classes and other ways the two students spend their time. Webb’s father clearly has a shady side that his son can’t even guess at, along with extreme moods that change in the blink of an eye. The novel also pointedly foreshadows that Bly’s behavior will cross the line at some point in the not-too-distant future.
And firearms are never far from the narrative.
Nye’s writing style is easy to read, with few flourishes, and he often is able to dish up concise descriptions of characters and situations. Waiting to talk to Rockcastle’s headmaster after a brawl on the basketball court the night before, Webb/Nye sum him up this way:
“His office was that of an executive who knew the figures in the quarterly reports the same way he knew the face in the mirror each morning.”
Noting that his parents were growing apart, Webb compares the animosity in his household to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall they were studying in history class:
“They seemed like that — separate worlds that were linked mostly by a name and divided by something solid, something like a mass of concrete, brick, and wire.”
“All the Castles Burned” is the kind of novel that readers will cruise through and be eager for what the author offers next. Stay tuned.
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after 45 years in journalism. He lives in west St. Louis County.