The nameless hero of Gary Sutton’s melodramatic novel is a striving outcast everyone in the little town of Oskaloosa, Iowa (a real place, by the way, southeast of Des Moines) just calls “Moon.” The bastard offspring of a round-heeled peroxide blonde and an Irish-Catholic handyman, he’s also cursed with a caved-in head shaped like a crescent moon: his witless mother sought to conceal the pregnancy, we’re told, and the tight girdle she wore damaged her child in the womb.
Illegitimate, deformed, half-Catholic and dirt-poor, Moon makes a perfect object for the author’s free-flowing sympathies and an ideal target for self-righteous bigots–notably Oskaloosa’s cartoonish dictator, a nasty, Cadillac-driving doctor named Throckmorton who rules the local school board, doles out usurious loans to struggling farmers and, for good measure, cheats on his wife with Moon’s neglectful mother. Toss in a moronic high school principal, a Nazarene minister who thinks the boy is the work of the devil and some mean kids, and the cast of old-fashioned villains is almost complete.
For three decades, Moon fights uphill, besieged on all sides by cruelty and injustice. He’s befriended only by other outsiders–his poor grandmother, a dyslexic schoolmate, a kindly hardware store owner and an understanding Jewish college professor, who serves as the book’s superfluous, second-string narrator.
Sutton says in an afterward that his inspirations include Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor. But Oskaloosa Moon reads more like disinterred Dickens–absent the great Victorian’s nimble turns of phrase. Over the neo-Dickensian top? The angelic girl Moon marries is blind, and she comes to a tragic end.
“Maybe the world just bounces from good to bad,” the plucky hero speculates. “Or could it just be that jealous people swat at you when you’re up, while the better people lend a hand when you’re down?”
Sutton’s heart is in the right place. But his preachy sentimentality and woe-ladened plot may stop the reader cold.
Also available in ebook.