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Mark Singer's father died in a bar brawl and his mother disappeared, so he came to be raised—during the 1940s—by his grandmother in the town of Sperry, Montana. And where was his favorite place to pass the time? Well, the Vagabond Cafe, owned and run by Nick Stavros with the help of his wife (until her death in 1947) and four daughters, these being, from oldest to youngest, Linny (short for Evangeline), Celia, Olivia, and tomboy Helen. It's 1952 when the story opens with Mark's marriage (at 22) to the serious-minded and sweetly domestic if moody Olivia, who gives him two kids in fairly quick time, but who doesn't—well, keep life compelling enough to prevent Mark from falling into the arms and bed of long-limbed, restless oldest-sister Linnie upon her sudden return from a handful of incognito years (she'd even missed Celia's wedding) in the beatnik streets and alleys of San Francisco. As for plot, there's not much more. Mark's passion, however, and his guilt mount in almost equal degree, until one night, "as if he's doing them all an enormous service," he tells all to an Olivia who's already been deeply depressed of late. A third of the novel is left, and let it only be said that all works out in an oddly undramatic but satisfying way—and that, from start to end, there's a steady feast of detail to be supped on as Mark goes through workdays (as a contractor's helper), night drives, outings into the countryside, and trips into memory.
A closely observed tale of domestic life that remains real all the way through.