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Set against the backbeat of classic rock hits of the 1970s, Ed Tarkington's pitch-perfect first novel pays tribute to music, love and growing up in small-town America. That Tarkington throws in illicit sex, a perverted cult leader and a multiple murder only enhances the novel's hypnotic grip on its readers.

Writing in the time-honored Southern Gothic tradition, Tarkington sets his story in Spencerville, Va., a quiet community near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The novel is told from the point of view of Rocky Askew, who recounts the tribulations of his young life mostly as they relate to his older brother Paul, whom he worships. And like other purveyors of the Southern Gothic tradition, Tarkington tosses in elements of the dark side of small-town living, in particular its struggles coping with a changing world.

The opening pages, in what might be a nod to the "To Kill a Mockingbird's" scenes in which Scout and Jem Finch dare each other to touch Boo Radley's porch, see Paul, 16, take Rocky, just half his age, to a rumored-to-be-haunted mansion in Spencerville. There's nothing derivative about the scene, and the act of violence that takes place on that night is a terrific starting point for all the intrigue that follows. Soon after, Paul briefly "kidnaps" his little brother — a scene inspired by something that happened in Tarkington's childhood — and days later Paul disappears. No one knows if he's alive or dead.

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Tarkington's Spencerville is much like a diorama depicting life across a fast-changing America. He has a talent for writing dead-on descriptions of the 1970s and how its significant events shaped the childhoods of people who grew up "at the sweaty, nauseous, split-headed peak of the hangover between Watergate and 'Morning in America.'" It was a time when race riots, the Vietnam War and the proverbial sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll convinced people perplexed by cultural shifts to watch the evening news and "believe that the country had, in fact, found sympathy for the devil."

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In provincial Spencerville the devil, it seems, is everywhere. Secret affairs, family betrayals, alcoholism and a shocking double murder rock this community more than the music blasted from local teens' record players and radios. Rock is their connection to the bigger world.

Like kids across the country, Paul and Rocky loved classic rock and spent endless days and nights in Paul's bedroom or his purple Chevy Nova listening to Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash and, of course, Neil Young, writer of the song that gives this book its title. Tarkington waxes poetically about the music through Rocky, who in an early scene is listening to side A of "After the Gold Rush" while staring at a poster of Young on Paul's bedroom wall. "Neil Young. To my ears, the very name was sublimely evocative, like a line of terse, elegantly understated poetry. The exaggerated percussion and practical sloppiness of the guitars and barroom piano and that strange, keening, almost childlike voice made the sound seem at once ancient and otherworldly."

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This novel may be a murder mystery wrapped in the cloak of Southern Gothic charm but, at its essence, it's a novel about love. Love for the music that informed Tarkington's formative years and love for the familial and romantic relationships that can hurt as much as uplift us.

Carol Memmott, who lives in Northern Virginia, also reviews books for the Washington Post.

"Only Love Can Break Your Heart"

By Ed Tarkington, Algonquin, 307 pages, $25.95

Source : http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-only-love-can-break-your-heart-ed-tarkington-20160127-story.html

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