Sunday, June 24, 2007

Returning to Modern America...with a vengeance

I took a bit of a break from my colonial history thing to read one of Tawni O'Dell's other books. I have both her previous books out from the library. The one that I didn't leave in the car was her first novel, Back Roads.

The dust jacket and the review on the book will tell you that it's funny. I will tell you that whoever wrote that is seriously fucked in the head. Unlike Sister Mine, which deals with many of the same serious themes, there is very little humor in this book. I think it's primarily due to the age of the protagonists, and distance from their catastrophes: Shae-Lynn was 40, and had managed to overcome her difficult childhood and teenage years to become a relatively successful adult. Harley is only 20. His mother is in in prison for having shot and killed his abusive father, leaving him to raise his three younger sisters: Amber, 16; Misty, 12; and Jody, who's only 6. All this happened a little over two years before the book started, and now he works two shitty jobs, he attends therapy sessions, and since his friends are all in college, he does little else.

He also has an intensity and anger that Shae-Lynn did not have. The book opens with him in a police station, accused of murder, and works backwards. As you get to know Harley, you're not surprised. He does have a lot to be pissed about, for sure, but he also seems pissed off about things that have little to do with his home life. Women, for instance. There's a scene where he goes to visit his mother in prison and almost gets himself kicked out for yelling at a ten-year old girl about using birth control and how she's going to get pregnant as a teenager if she's not careful. Other people, in general, piss Harley off. He gets in several fights during the book, some of them physical. He doesn't get much out of his therapy sessions, and frequently visualizes violent acts: "I...imagined picking up the empty pan and swinging it with all my night, catching Jody in the head first, knocking her off her chair, and then hitting Misty and watching her spit up bloody macaroni and cheese..."

There is also little redemption at the end of the book. Unlike Sister Mine, things don't generally end up working out and resolving themselves, which I guess is realistic. But this one doesn't leave you feeling good. That's not to say that it isn't a good book. O'Dell once again takes you into a world that most people don't really care to read about: a world of dirty houses with burned-out couches on the front lawn, where women and children get beat up by the man of the house, where teenaged girls run wild, adults work at dead-end, ball-breaking jobs, high school graduation rates are low, and the people who shop at Wal-Mart are considered upper-middle-class. Her characters, and their hopes and dreams, are all vivid, and all treated respectfully.

Many people make fun of the real-life counterparts to O'Dell's characters, and most of them just prefer to pretend they don't exist. But they're a lot more representative of America than the characters in a novel by, say, Jennifer Weiner or Candace Bushnell. I've spent the past two years living and working in an area that's only marginally better than the coal towns of Western PA, and I'm glad this perspective is getting represented in modern literature.

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