“The Last Good Halloween,” by Giano Cromley. Tortoise Books, www.tortoisebooks.com. Paperback, 235 pages.
By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost
Kirby Russo has a problem. A bunch of them, actually. His disengaged mom has lived with a slew of stepfathers. His high school grades are low. He is sent to St. Vincent Hospital for psychological evaluation after he wrecks the family car while trying to bump a bully’s bicycle. He sort of likes a girl at school but isn’t quite sure what to do about that.
Of such adolescent complications is cobbled a new novel by Giano Cromley, who was born in Billings and now teaches English at Kennedy-King College in Chicago. He sets the book in Billings during the Dukakis-Bush election of 1988, and he weaves a sweet and often funny tale of high school angst and confusion.
For Kirby, a high school sophomore, Problem No. 1 is keeping track of the Bradley-Returns Index, the daily odds that his most recent stepfather will return to the family home in Billings. The odds aren’t good: Bradley isn’t even Kirby’s real father, or, as he puts it, the Original Biological Contributor. That man blew through town as a third baseman for the Billings Mustangs, was gone after one season and never returned.
Nor does Kirby really care all that much for Bradley. But Bradley did bring a certain stability to Kirby’s unsettled life, and his apparent replacement, a neighbor from across the street, has little appeal.
Things aren’t much better at school until Kirby meets a girl, Izzy Woodley, whose home life is even more troubled than his own. She dresses in black, cheats on a typing test, hangs out with cigarette-smoking juveniles and reads some really serious literature. They strike up an off-kilter romance that occasionally threatens to ignite into something more.
Kirby’s only friend, Julian, comes from a picture-perfect household that, it turns out, also is falling apart. So all three kids are carrying excess baggage when they commandeer a relative’s car for a drive to Great Falls in an effort to talk Bradley into coming back to Billings.
It’s not much of a plot, really, and not much comes of it. But Mr. Cromley has a light touch and a keen ear for dialogue. His observations on adolescent life may not be piercing, but they ring true. Kirby steers his way through life with an endearing blend of awkwardness, personal charm, humor, anger and defiance, trying, at least, to every day get a little better.
Fair warning: Not much is made of the Billings connection. Kirby’s school sounds a lot like Senior High School – there’s even a KwikWay across the street – but it’s called Roosevelt High. Reference is made to what must be Shotgun Willie’s, but it’s been renamed Cattle Call.
Odd bits and pieces here and there point to a Billings setting – the sugar beet factory, an art gallery on Montana Avenue – but this novel could have been set in just about Anywhere, America.
Perhaps that’s just as well. The problems of high school students as they negotiate the boundaries between childhood and adulthood seem to be universal problems, certainly not a Billings phenomenon. But the grace with which Mr. Cromley draws his vision of this corner of the world makes the book a welcome addition to the Montana bookshelf and perhaps a sign of more and better to come.