The Longest Acquaintance is both prequel and sequel to A Fraternal Attraction – the story of a forbidden romance between two brothers – and covers the period 1965 -1967 when Luke is serving in Vietnam and Rob still in high school, picking up the story at the point where the previous book concludes. Luke’s platoon is assigned as garrison defence for a Fire Support Base, from where they are deployed on highly dangerous long range reconnaissance patrols deep in enemy territory. In the meantime life goes on much as before in Harperville, with Rob struggling to conform to the conventions governing accepted behaviour vis-à-vis the opposite sex. In her de facto role as agony aunt and keeper of the town secrets, Loubelle continues to dispense her cynical and world-weary advice to patrons who frequent the bakery.
Luke’s unit is flown to a U.S. base north of Saigon, where a large number of army support personnel are stationed on a permanent basis, for a few days of R&R. The comparatively luxurious living conditions of the “rear-enders” are resented by men returning from active combat service, who also come into conflict with a Washington reporter who is highly critical of American B52 bombing runs and strike missions. Following Luke’s discharge from the army in 1967 the brothers are reunited and the family are invited to spend a few days with their relatives, where the two families sit out on their porch at night reminiscing and mulling over more contemporary concerns such as the impact of strip-mining in south-eastern Kentucky, and the looming draft as the war in Vietnam escalates. The three cousins revisit their childhood haunts, hiking up to “The Alamo” – a rocky outcrop which served as a natural fortress for their boyhood games with replica rifles and guns.
Upon their return home, Rob’s father tries to get his younger son to take an interest in the operation of the family-run sawmill, but Rob is more interested in meeting up with his brother at Steve’s Roadhouse – renowned for its public brawls – and whose rowdy male clientele consists of loggers, truckers, and coal miners. Rob’s artlessness and naiveté is finely counterbalanced by Luke’s more hardheaded pragmatism, but the genuine warmth and affection between the two brothers is evident as they embark on an adventurous camping trip through the Appalachians – white water rafting down the New River Gorge and hiking the remote wilderness trails of Smoke Hole Canyon in the Allegheny mountains of West Virginia. Although the book can be viewed as a nostalgic paean to a vanished era – when children had a great deal of freedom and were actively encouraged to explore the Great Outdoors – it will also resonate strongly with modern readers: without being political or didactic, the novel subtly questions the notions of normalcy and “unnatural” behaviour, and there are very few instances where a strong societal taboo has been tackled with such restraint and sensitivity.
NB: Although both books can be enjoyed as standalone novels, readers wishing to read both are advised to read A Fraternal Attraction first.
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