Tawni O’Dell, Back Roads (Viking, 2000)
[originally posted 17Aug2000]
I find the whole thing incredibly amusing.
Had a man written this book, word for word, the character of Harvey Altmeyer would no doubt be blazoned on the front as “an unstoppable sociopath about to explode” (fill in the correct number of exclamation points, depending on era and author). Instead, the back cover blurb calls him “wonderfully touching.” Oh, please.
Thank heaven Tawni O’Dell is a much better writer than her blurbist, because Harley Altmeyer is the least likable hero I’ve run across since Michael Moorcock decided an anorexic albino with a big black sword sounded like a good idea. Note I didn’t say antihero there; Harley Altmeyer is certainly the hero of this book in that, while O’Dell keeps him so unlikable he gets nauseating at times, we never stop feeling sympathy for him.
Altmeyer is on the brink of his twentieth birthday, and as we open he’s sitting in the box in the local police station being grilled by three cops for killing his girlfriend—who just happens to be the thirty-four-year-old wife of the next-door neighbor. Not terribly surprising, the cops muse, given his roots; Harley’s mother was convicted of icing his father a couple years previous, and is now sitting in prison in Indiana, PA (I point this out because for the first hundred fifty pages I wondered how they could drive from Pennsylvania to Indiana in two hours—and I spent over half my life living less than an hour from Indiana, PA. Obviously a truly memorable place). Harley spends about two hundred fifty pages spinning out his tale, and it’s a doozy. After his mom iced his dad, he was dead and she was in jail, and the task of raising his three younger sisters fell squarely on Harley’s shoulders. Nineteen, saddled with all the bills, working two jobs, and having to raise three sisters, ranging in age from six to sixteen. It’s not exactly a Frank Capra film. And Harley, whose love/hate relationship with all women borders on the psychotic, is in no way going to be mistaken for Jimmy Stewart (actually, I saw Giovanni Ribisi, circa his memorable X-Files appearance, playing this guy).
If you’ve got half a brain and have read enough books along these lines, you’ve probably got half of it figured before you open the front cover. But O’Dell’s writing is so thoroughly disingenuous, and Harley (the very essence of the unreliable narrator!) is so straightforward and quasi-logical that he’s completely believable. And so, despite the general predictability of the plot points, they still hit with a roundhouse.
The tendency, of course, is to compare this with the other novels in the Oprah stable, but it pulls me in a different direction; there’s more here that invites comparison with Ian McEwan’s weepingly good first novel, The Cement Garden (and not just the overall plot, either). While McEwan has turned into something of a washed-out pansy since he hit us over the head with that particular cement block, I still have high hopes for O’Dell. This is stark, simple, minimal, easy to read, compelling, with some of the strongest characterization I’ve come across in years, and somehow the revelations that just kind of wander through the last fifty pages (no big emotional revelatory scenes here) still manage to surprise, not to mention tug at the heartstrings.
Oprah found a good’un here, that’s for sure. Let’s just hope O’Dell doesn’t end up a washed-out pansy who moves to England for the sole purpose of getting short-listed for the Booker Prize. *** ½