April 11 2014 12:00 AM

Brewer’s ‘Dreams Gone Wrong’ a mixed deck of MSU and Lansing history

More than 300 pages are packed into “Dreams Gone Wrong,” former State Rep. Lingg Brewer’s epic about gamblers and campus turmoil at Michigan State University and in Lansing during the 1960s. And each page is a fresh roll of the dice.

Turn a page and you might run smack into tough private-eye prose or bland statistics, intimate personal reminiscences or warmed-over national events, a brutal rape in the back seat of a Ford sedan or an anodyne lesson in Oldsmobile history. You may or may not get a sentence with a verb; you may or may not even be getting Brewer’s own prose. (See story on page 5, “Already read that.”) But if you can roll with a game this dicey, there is pleasure to be had.

Brewer’s main concern in “Dreams Gone Wrong” is a frayed knot of layabouts from Lansing and East Lansing he calls the “bumboys.” They hang out at the MSU Union Grill, breezing along on good looks, booze and drugs, tracking sports and avoiding classes. But when they try their luck in working-class Lansing, they end up in serious trouble. The story is told from Brewers own experience. He includes himself as a character, under the name of Charlie, and packs the narrative with first-hand vignettes, from a precise map of Brewer’s downtown paper route at age 16 to a dizzy, drug-fueled climb to the top of the Capitol dome.

But the bumboys are only half the story in “Dreams Gone Wrong.” Brewer devotes about the same amount of space to a larger canvas, the story of MSU’s early involvement in the Vietnam War and the consequent waves of campus protest.

A common theme joins the two threads, but just barely. Well-meaning MSU President John Hannah and his administration got into trouble when they leave the comfortable “bubble” of East Lansing to dabble in the murk of Vietnam; the bumboys make the same mistake when they venture into the rough neighborhoods of workingclass Lansing. Brewer tries to tie the two stories together with narrative links in the vein of “while Sally was frying eggs, JFK was shot,” but “Dreams Gone Wrong” still plays like two different decks of material, forcibly shuffled into one.

There are other places to learn about MSU’s entanglements in Vietnam — books that use confidence-boosting footnotes and references — so the pleasureseeking reader’s smart money belongs on the bumboys.

The story is leisurely and oddly told. A one-paragraph chapter recounts a character’s birth and nothing more. Brewer keeps his insider nuggets coming all the way to the book’s denouement, a startling round of senseless murders. Along the way, he walks the reader through neighborhoods and downtown streets, ducking into nowdefunct pool halls and bars, prowling the unmarked perimeters that divide preppy Collegeville from gritty Lansing. We get capsule histories of high-rolling trucking magnate Howard Sober and the rise of the Story Olds dealership. We learn the difference between a tony East Lansing house party circa 1969 and a rough house party on the east side of Lansing from a man who has been to both. We learn why the television studio on Saginaw Street looks like a ‘60’s motel.

Many of these digressions don’t move the story along, but Lansing denizens will find them interesting anyway.

When Brewer is in hard-boiled mode, a sentence can be as satisfying as a slap: “There were two reasons for this, and they were both Rick.” My favorite line in the book pops up in a flashback sequence: 8-year-old “Charlie” is walking with his mother in downtown Lansing, near Allegan Street and Washington Square, when a ‘52 Ford convertible full of jeering teenagers rides past. “I held my moms hand with my left hand, and with my right hand gave them the finger,” Charlie/Lingg recalls.

But “Dreams Gone Wrong” is a mixed deck at every level. Punctuation disappears, only to take revenge and double up elsewhere. The reader is slugged with redundancies like “from too high a height,” “Communist world conquest and domination” and “two large globes to provide light during the evening hours.”

Undisciplined inclusiveness is both Brewer’s weakness and strength. We learn about GM sales reports and scan MSU enrollment figures, get a tour of the crushworthy women in Brewer’s high school yearbook and a very precise description of the stairway leading to the MSU Union’s west entrance.

His sudden dumps of unnecessary in formation run to extremes. Setting the scene at the MSU Union, Brewer compares the tame rock ‘n’ roll on Lansings WILS radio in 1961 to the hipper music played by a clear-channel station in Gallatin, Tenn., “named after Thomas Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, the Swiss-born Albert Gallatin who reduced the national debt and lowered taxes at the same time.” Is he putting us on?

For every bracing slap of film noir lingo, there is a grueling grammatical workover with a blunt truncheon: “Somehow McAllen, drunk at the time, had gotten crossways with the heavy-on psychoanalyzing rent-a-cop who got too buddy, buddy, trying to do the favorite uncle routine.” After 300 pages of this, you’re so punchy you can’t tell whether the book is good, bad, so-bad-it’s-good or whether it makes any difference.

We all have an inner masochist. Roll with the punches, play the cards Brewer deals, and you will learn a thing or two.