Book Review: Puff

Puff: A Novel

By Bob Flaherty

Published February 2005

Harper Perennial

288 pp.

ISBN 0-060-75152-5

Date reviewed: March 10, 2005

Originally reviewed in: The Daily Cardinal

Two brothers in 1970’s Boston learned the location of high-quality pot only one town away. The catch? It’s the middle of a fierce winter blizzard and no cars are allowed on the highway. The solution? Disguise their ancient van as a Red Cross truck. The next catch? People think they really are the Red Cross—and want their help.

This crisis sets the stage for Bob Flaherty’s “Puff,” a hilarious and gripping story about two young men approaching the turning point. John and his brother Gully have been drifting through life for years, unable to focus on jobs or family for more than five minutes. Driving through the snow in pursuit of an ounce of Dominican Sin they uncover childhood friends and memories, thrown on a road that pushes them to adulthood by the end.

The focus of the story is on John and Gully, and Flaherty portrays it with startling familiarity. The conversations the two have are some of the funniest moments in the story and any set of brothers will be able to identify with their dynamic; mostly jokes and insults, with an occasional serious comment neither wants to think about for too long.

Flaherty infuses the story with amazing character development. He scatters key figures from the brothers’ childhood across the snow; including John’s childhood crush Dally, the ominous priest at the local church and their homicidal family cat, Puff.

John’s artistic mind picks up the best parts—he describes the priest’s “cold, penetrating, silver-blue bloodshot eyes” and Puff’s (assumed) goal to dice apart the family and drag them behind the couch. Every character seems like a person or pet that could be right next door.

Flaherty draws heavily on his background as a cartoonist and comedian, sprinkling the whole book with keen jokes and observations. Both John and Gully spend the book laughing at everything—even while their mother suffers from cancer—and most readers will be in the same hysterical state when Gully ruins an Army interview or John blows a backseat encounter by discussing comic books.

Some of the best memories stand out free from the narrative, such as when the boys’ mother has an illustrated story rejected by the publishers and when the brothers tear apart their father’s shop with their mentally disabled friend Ward. These chapters can all be read as independent short stories without the story’s narrative tying them together, making “Puff” an excellent book to pick up when reading time is short.

“Puff” is an excellent novel of young adulthood and family, a collection of short stories tied together by the hunt for a promised high. Flaherty pulls in hundreds of little details and anecdotes, blending skeletons with racism and religion with moles to write one of the smoothest books in years.

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