The real name of the Perfume Factory was International Scents and Essences of New Jersey, but everyone in Port Beach called it the Perfume Factory, and there wasn’t a place in the town from which you couldn’t see the factory’s towers and smokestacks[…] Even on a Friday night, the factory spilled out the sickly sweet odors that made Port Beach smell like the bottom of an old woman’s handbag.
The “sickly sweetness” of The Perfume Factory‘s home town, Port Beach is deceiving. It is in fact a dilapidated resort town on the coast of New Jersey where the unemployment is as high as the number of taverns and misguided teenagers.
The story is set in the 1960s. Sam is nearly eighteen, a high-school dropout and the oldest of three. His parents are both drunks. His father is unemployed, an abusive and bitter ex-military man. Sam’s mother is weak but loudmouthed, and her tenderness for Sam instigates his father’s temper. Sam is tormented, wise for his seventeen years. He reads Kant and Hume and Schopenhauer and might have been a philosopher himself if born into a different time or life.
Alex Austin’s gritty coming-of-age novel opens with an abrasive encounter with Sam’s family, after which he goes “down to the Front.”
Friday night always began at Jack’s Café[…] Like the two bars that made up the trio of businesses on the east side of Front Street, Jack’s was set right on the beach, whose yellow sands piled up against the foundation and curled around the bottom of the front door like a yellow tentacle.
Sam runs into his wild friend Leo and they go out for a joyride. Sam meets Julie, a beautiful sophisticate from Jersey City. Her family is staying in Keysburg, a richer sister-city to Port Beach, for the summer. His first words to her are lies. He makes up an alternate, better life, at first to amuse himself, but maybe also to impress her. He tells her he is going to school at Princeton. “I gave myself a dead father, an inventor who had perished while testing a one-man submarine off the coast of Nova Scotia[…] I spun a world that I never came close to living in. I started getting so good at it, I started believing it. It was exhilarating, and it wasn’t until later that I wondered if I could only interest this girl in me by fabricating myself, even if she didn’t believe a word of it.” But she does take an interest in him, even if for whatever twisted realities he has told her. And with Julie, Sam experiences his first real tastes of love and pain; because of Julie, he finds himself in all kinds of the usual trouble.
Alex Austin is an award-winning playwright, which is apparent in his convincing teenage dialogue. His young characters are fascinating. Their naïve invincibility, their teenage wants and fears bring them to life. Most of these characters are independently unique and memorable, though a few of them are not so fully fleshed. Sadly, Sam’s brother and sister are merely sketches, and his father, while developed throughout the story, in the beginning comes across as an unnecessary tyrant.
All of Austin’s Port Beach is magically created; his images are sharp and clear. Austin grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and his local expertise is evident in his prose. This story is illustrated through Sam’s voice which is observant and honest, edging on poetic. “With the darkness came the fireflies, which Julie wanted to catch and put in a jar. We ran around the yard, cupping them and depositing them in the jar until we had thirty or forty. But though they continued to glow in the jar, the magic had gone out of their light and what started as a quest for something extraordinary turned solemn. Julie opened the jar and shook them out. As they spread across the night, I watched her face, lost for a moment in their flight and regained magic.” But while Sam is observant of the magic in his world, he is equally observant of the dark and ugly realities. Sam’s narrative swings between the extremities of tenderness and violence, beauty and filth.
The Perfume Factory is a debut novel for Alex Austin, a touching story, and Sam is a wholly loveable rogue. Sam struggles with his lack of possibilities, of being born into poverty, a soul-depleting, lackluster town, and family dysfunction. He is conflicted with wanting to become better than what he was born into while being sentenced to the life he has. He is a good boy turned sour by the circumstances of his world, which he deals with in this coming-of-age summer.
Laura Rae Amos