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Emily BurnsThe bastard of the title is Billy Mann, left by his mother in a basket on the doorstep of his paternal grandfather. Eddie has just been killed in Vietnam, and Billy is raised by the grandfather, who spends most of his time killing his own pain with whiskey. Though coming-of-age-in-a-dysfunctional-family stories are a dime a dozen, this first novel by twenty-eight-year-old Kowalski never descends into maudlin self-pity, and the plot, though complex, never becomes overly convoluted.
Billy is a likable boy, and his grandfather is an appealing character. The supporting characters are all flawed, some irredeemably, and even the more interesting and pleasant ones, such as Billy’s childhood friend Annie and the town’s doctor, harbor secrets. As the narrative progresses and the tales of redemption develop, Kowalski never lets his story become heavy-handed and his characters remain real as they attempt to solve their problems. Billy’s descriptions of his adolescence are pleasantly understated.