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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 17, 2003

'Fred' reaches at times but is thoroughly enjoyable

"WELCOME TO FRED, A Novel," by Brad Whittington; Broadman & Holman Publishers, trade paperback, $12.99

By Wanda Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Brad Whittington's first novel evokes adolescence with humor and more than a nod to the rueful embarrassment that comes of remembrances of one's early and unformed self.

If Whittington, who lives in Hawai'i Kai and works in telecommunications, sometimes tries a bit too hard reaching for the clever turn of phrase, it is at least in keeping with the age and personality of his key character, Mark Cloud.

The book begins in flashback, but through most of the action, Mark is a teenager enduring a triple pariah-dom in the late 1960s in the tiny East Texas town of Fred: He is a semi-northerner (born in Texas, but having spent some years in Ohio, where he lost his ain't and his accent and gained a taste for flower power). He is a good student. And he is a PK, a preacher's kid, a circumstance he describes as "The Great Divider," causing conversations to come to a flat halt and jokes to dry up whenever he approaches.

He spends much of his time at school watching his classmates from afar. "All I knew of these kids was what I could learn from afar, like an astronomer studying a star."

But this is not a sad story of isolation. Mark does make friends — wacky though they may be. And at times his life, particularly during a breakdown-plagued family vacation, is a little bit like a comedy sketch. You can see how this book might be born out of the kind of stories that people tell at family gatherings. "You remember that friend Mark had, Jolene? The biggest fox in Fred, but nobody wanted to go out with her because that girl just could not resist a practical joke. One time ... " and the tale spins out.

Cloud's dad is the pastor of a small Baptist church and the linchpin of this family. He's a character many will recognize, though they don't seem to make dads like this anymore: Guided by a genuine sense of rectitude; a provider who takes his responsibilities to his family seriously; a man who expects "yes, sir" and "no, sir" —Êand gets them; a parsimonious fellow who would always rather jury-rig something old than buy something new, even if he can afford it.

But Matthew Cloud is also a smart man, and well-read, and one who, we learn, can be depended upon. He's the kind of guy who will congratulate you for telling the truth when you get caught lying about where you've been, then ground you for lying in the first place. It is he who volunteers the etymology of the word "hippie" when Mark sees his first group of longhairs in a park, and experiences an epiphany. And it is he who, in a key scene, encourages a frank debate about the existence of God and the rightness of the Bible, even though the outcome could mean that his son will reject the faith he holds so dear.

Reviewer's 'fess-up: I don't go for guy humor much — that kind of word-packed, exaggerated storytelling that passes for humor in many books written by men with a male audience in mind.

At first, "Welcome to Fred" seemed to be me to be in this vein, and to move too slowly. But about the time Mark meets and befriends a woman who lives in a cardboard box — a person who both scares and attracts him — things got pretty interesting. I gobbled up the book in a couple of enjoyable evenings after that. And it not only amused me but, as my Southern Baptist cousins might say, it ministered to me, too.

Mark has some learning to do when the book opens, but he is also a character with some depth, one who doesn't always do the predictable. The final scene in which he crosses the most important threshold of his life is undramatic, carried out in his head but the more believable for it. Epiphany often occurs in this quiet, internal way.

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