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Marc Sercomb
Living in Cleveland with the Ghost of Joseph Stalin
Marc Sercomb, author
It’s the summer of 1953. Calvin Jefferson Coolidge is thirteen years old when the ghost of Joseph Stalin appears to him in his Aunt Evelyn’s cluttered Cleveland attic and wants to dictate his memoirs to him. “I want to tell my side of the story,” Uncle Joe tells him. “They’re giving me one year to set the record straight, so we need to get started right away.” Calvin’s life is falling apart at the seams. He’s a misfit and loner whose only friends are famous dead people. He loves polka music and Westerns and sometimes wonders what it would be like to kiss a girl. His con man father is in Florida looking for his bipolar runaway mother. His cousin Buck is abducted and experimented on by aliens. The lady next door wants to coach him in the ways of love. His pastor thinks he’s headed straight for Hell. His English teacher thinks he’s a savant. The school psychologist wants to have him committed. His shrink thinks he’s just plain nuts. Sometimes, Calvin believes it too. Everybody’s trying to figure out what makes Calvin tick in this quirky, fast-paced metaphysical romp through the heart and soul of 1950’s America.
Sercomb’s imaginative second novel seems to have been pulled straight from the summer of 1953 and serves as homage to that time, despite some touches of the absurd. Calvin Jefferson Coolidge is thirteen years old. His father is an inveterate gambler, and as for his mother, well, as he puts it “most people called her nuts.” After a stint in foster care, Calvin moves in with his Aunt Evelyn in Cleveland. Evelyn is a rough woman who has a taste for alcohol, suffers from agoraphobia, and tells Calvin to “fend for himself” when it comes to meals. His life in shambles, Calvin makes a surprising discovery in Aunt Evelyn’s cluttered attic, where he’s looking “for her lost husband’s cheap second-hand accordion.” There he meets the ghost of Joseph Stalin, who wants Calvin to write his memoirs--“to counteract all of the lies and false information perpetrated by my detractors and enemies!”

This would be enough to keep any kid occupied, but Calvin’s life is a maelstrom of weirdness even beyond Stalin. (His cousin reports being “abducted by men from Mars and taken up into their spaceship.) Still, as Calvin deals with a school psychologist and the lavish encouragement of an English teacher, the narrative’s emphasis lies in exploring childhood in the context of American suburbia in the 1950s. This is a story with soda jerks and beatniks in the streets and Howdy Doody and Senator McCarthy talking about communists on TV.

The humor and observations make this truly enjoyable beyond being an engaging slice of Americana. This is a funny story told in the energetic, curious voice of a teenager, but one with thoughts that will entertain adults. While slightly long, and offering more incident than plot, Sercomb’s novel will appeal to those who lived through the 1950s as well as those fascinated by that era.

Takeaway: A sharp teen voice drives this episodic, playfully ambitious novel of 1950s America.

Great for fans of: Tom Perrotta, A.M. Homes

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A