Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Back Roads: dark and depressing

Two stars

I found this book on the shelves of the library when I was attracted to another book by Tawni O'Dell. Because I often like to start with the first of a new author's books, I picked up this one instead. The cover had the word "funny" on it, among others. Funny it was not.

Nearly-20-year-old Harley Altmyer is raising his three sisters by holding down two menial jobs. His mom is in prison for killing his abusive father. The hand-to-mouth, living-on-the-edge poverty reminded me of the movie Frozen River. People do really exist on pop tarts, Mountain Dew, hot dogs, fortune cookies, and macaroni and cheese. People can survive tragic events in their lives and each day can seem like a living hell.

Harley reacts to his living hell by thinking violent thoughts about everyone around him. At the same time, he is protective of his sisters and deep down seems to have a compassionate soul, when he's not getting drunk or figuring out how to screw the neighbor woman. The book opens with Harley being held for the murder of his lover.

He's desperate for love and affection, as are his sisters. As the book progresses, the secrets in the deeply dysfunctional family begin getting exposed. Harley and his sisters are deeply damaged children, and they do not know how to make good choices or even know what good choices are.

O'Dell's writing was sound, but I found this book very difficult to get through. Beyond its extremely difficult content (violence, murder, incest), the plot moved slowly until the end. O'Dell describes herself as half Pennsylvania redneck and half Southern white trash. She evoked a sense of place and created complicated characters.

Even with all the pain and trauma the characters experienced, the choices they made didn't ring true for me. Perhaps that's because the setting and characters of this novel are just about as far away from my life that they could get. I think of real people I know who have been through worse pain and trauma and have survived intact.

I didn't know until after I had finished the book that it was on Oprah's book club. No surprise there. If you're looking for a dark, depressing novel of dysfunction, give it a try.

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