John and Gully, teenage ne’er-do-well brothers in 1970s Boston, have just gotta get a lid of grass from Doody Levine tonight. Problem is, they’ve just been hit by the mother of all blizzards, so how are they going to get their buzz on? Easy. They purloin some Red Cross gear, decorate their deceased dad’s newspaper delivery van with magnetic emblems, and tie armbands over the stained grocery clerk smocks they stole from their last abortive effort at employment. Suitably disguised as rescue workers, they plow through the slush toward that sweet tonic, until someone flags them down for emergency assistance. Thus begins Puff, a comedy of errors including a frozen dog, a bucket full of disgusting Eastern European cooking, the mustachioed girl next door returning as a gorgeous drama major, a knife-wielding Puerto Rican, and John and Gully’s mother, dying of cancer in the hospital they keep returning to despite their best efforts to get high.
First-time novelist Bob Flaherty replicates the insular, cast-of-thousands intimacy of tight-knit Irish neighborhoods, swinging no less than 20 major characters through flashback and present day with familiar, anecdotal ease. Details, like the penciled hieroglyphics scribbled on the interior of their father’s van (shorthand for delivery routes and orders), or how a mechanic can curse “those niggers” in one breath and fix their flats for free the next, give weight to his reconstruction of a time and place. His writing has an easy descriptive wit and impeccable, if broad, comic timing.
However, no matter how surefooted its universe, Puff succumbs to fatal first-novelitis. The plot is a plate-spinning act of one wacky distraction after another, each created and abandoned and resurrected when convenient. What starts as a plausible night to remember ends up as a chop suey of unbelievable events. By the time John’s broken into the high school, bedded the heroine, and run from the cops, we’re only at the halfway point—where do we go from here? Unfortunately, only into more pointless hijinks and an unjustified “coming of age” shoehorned on the end. All the characters are too clever by half and love the sardonic sound of their own voices—especially Dally, the returned beauty, whose arch commentary gets grating fast. Puff’s cumulative effect is that of an entertaining drinking buddy who’s telling a hell of a story that, after too many beers, you unfortunately no longer believe.