That Was Then, This is Now
Mark and Byron were more than best friends; they were brothers. They grew up half-feral, raised by a struggling mom and struck by violence at an early age. Their fond childhood memories included fighting with other ‘greasers’, and staying up all night smoking and drinking to impress chicks. No matter what kind of trouble came their way, Mark and Bryon could charm or wiggle their way out of it…but the magic is wearing off with age. At sixteen, adulthood is not as far away as it once was, and Bryon in particular is starting to sense his age. He can recall his youthful self in the idiotic young teenyboppers trying to strut their stuff across the street, and is beginning to wonder what the meaning of it all is. That Was Then, This Is Now is a tragic story of the two boys as they grow apart, divided by the choices they make and the people they are becoming. The story is tragic not simply because relationships die, because in the end the narrator is left with nothing but anguished questions.
I read That Was Then countless times in high school, and even today it holds a coveted place in my headboard book shelf. It’s a short tale full of emotion, a gritty story of working-class toughs trying to figure out their place in the world. In the early part of the book, Mark and Bryon drift along aimlessly; they fight, they hustle, they hit on girls. They both seem conscious that their lives are changing, or about to, but Mark resists and hardens himself, while Bryon is taken along by it. He becomes involved with a girl, Cathy, and for once it’s more than chemical infatuation; she becomes his friend in a way that no other girl ever has. For the first time, he’s emotionally engaged with someone who isn’t Mark, who isn’t just a beautiful lion who only cares for himself and his brother. When Mark and Bryon witness a friend shot down for defending them, the crack between the two widens. Bryon begins to feel the weight of consequence, which Mark continues to shrug off, and when Bryon realizes Mark is involved in something so serious it can’t be ignored, he makes a fateful decision to hold his brother accountable. There is no happy ending, only the realization that some things destroyed can never be rebuilt.
I read everything of Hinton I could find after encountering this book in high school, attracted by working-class characters whose lives were nevertheless completely different than my own sheltered one. (My neighborhood’s idea of a gang war involved mud balls and plums, not switchblades and broken beer bottles.) Some of Hinton’s characters have a vividness about them that despite not having read the books for well over a decade, they still persist in my memory; That was Then‘s M&M is one such character, unforgettable despite his supporting role. For the uninitiated, there’s a curious period charm to this as well, set as it is in the early 1970s, with ample hippies. For me, reading this only restored in sharper detail a story which I’ve never forgotten, even though why its hooks are in me so deep I don’t quite know.