THE OAKS, by Rip Rense

Reviews. . .
Read Brett Johnson's fine feature article on "The Oaks" from the Ventura County Star HERE.

A private wonderland
by Barry Smolin

  Having encountered the adult Charlie Bogle in Rip Rense's debut novel The Last Byline, readers will find it illuminating to meet the future journalist in the author's wholly satisfying prequel/follow-up novel The Oaks.
          As in The Last Byline, Bogle is very much an Atlas figure, his name a fitting anagram for Globe, his rounded shoulders, ever slouching toward Bethlehem, bearing the weight of a cockamamie universe. To learn that this mythic conflict began myriad dysfunctions ago, with the emotionally hobbled father figure and the evil stepmother drawn from ancient folklore yet modern and real at the same time, always rooted in rootlessness, completes our understanding of Charlie Bogle's eternal search for home.          
          In the evolving childhood and adolescence of young Bogle, alienation becomes an art form. Charlie finds his strength, his 'oaks', in the fruits of human creativity, high and low, from the classical majesty of Puccini and Beethoven to the wickedly witty cynicism of W.C. Fields. But most of all the awesome cosmos of The Beatles is what really rocks the struggling youth's conscience with its sublime mixture of rebellion and contentment, the safe harbor of unmitigated self-expression.
          The Beatles transcend pop music and become, for Charlie, a signpost to the richness and authenticity he craves in the real world. Essentially motherless and desperate for his father's approval, Bogle learns early on how to fend for himself, communing alone with nature, entranced by the expanse of a pre-natal suburbia, still rugged with wildlife and unpaved openness, generally unwelcome in the house, burdened with the ongoing mission of staying out of everyone's way, constructing a private Wonderland (or, more properly, a Shtikenbooby), a self-contained galaxy of his own devising.
          The brilliant irony (and ultimate lesson) of The Oaks is that 'home' really has nothing to do with 'place,' despite Charlie's deep sensitivity (and attachment) to the nuances and power of place. Home is an internal state, a sense of connection and belonging, which Charlie finds in music, in poetry, in his lonely bedroom, in his meager collection of precious possessions, in Sweetie, in Trudy, in a panorama of interactive mythologies, but perhaps most symbolically in those great bulwarks of immovability, earthbound yet ever aspiring heavenward, that grand cluster of roots and branches called 'The Oaks."

Smolin is a musician, celebrated high school English teacher, and longtime host of "The Music Never Stops" on KPFK-FM.

A pure delight
by Dave Lindorff

          The last time we saw Charles Bogle, he was dealing with the collapse of a once proud newspaper, in Rip Rense’s masterful novel The Last Byline.
          Now, in Rense’s prequel, The Oaks, we get to learn where Bogle came from. And what a screwed-up family he had: parents separated, mother a nutcase who couldn’t care for her own kid and had to send him to his alcoholic father, and to top it all off, an evil stepmother who would make Snow White positively grateful for her witch of a mother.
          What rescues The Oaks from being simply a depressing tale of domestic disintegration, though, is the amazing resilience of its protagonist. Even as he is clobbered by one disaster after another—his mother dumps him, his father betrays him at every turn, his stepmother sucks every pleasure out of his life, even denying him instrument lessons when he wants them—young Bogle never surrenders to despair. Somehow, each defeat seems to make him more resilient. What also makes this seeming downer of a book into a pure delight to read is the gentle humor that pervades it, and the sheer honesty of how it puts us inside the head of an angst-ridden teenager.
          Rense clearly hasn’t forgotten what a nightmare it is to be tormented by school brutes, or to have your family pull you out of your school and your community and insert you in a strange new school. Neither has he forgotten the embarrassment of getting an erection during your first slow dance, or of having acute gastrointestinal difficulty just as you’re about to receive your first kiss.
          But at the same time, the author also still remembers, and conveys with conviction, the sheer joy of climbing into an ancient old tree, or of listening for the first time to a new Beatles release. The Oaks offers us a pubescent, boys-eye view of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and of the modern dysfunctional American family. It’s Tom Sawyer without Huck Finn and the Mississippi River—a boy living a complicated, sometimes secret life underneath the radar of the self-involved adults all around him.
       A worthy companion to The Last Byline, The Oaks leaves the reader wanting to go back and read what happens to Charlie when he grows up.

Lindorff is co-author of "The Case For Impeach-ment," and a widely recognized investigative journalist whose column is carried on

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