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Family Values

'Back Roads' unwraps the dark riddle of a troubled household

By Patrick Sullivan

EVERYBODY makes mistakes, but some people make more than others. Case in point: Oprah's Book Club, which has, it's true, selected a few really wonderful novels over the past few years, but which has also used the bone-crushing power of its founder's name to hammer home some truly terrible books, driving them like a stake through America's literary heart.

Therefore, if you've wandered into your local book emporium lately, you might be tempted to instantly dismiss Tawni O'Dell's Back Roads (Viking; $24.95). Copies of the new novel--selected by Oprah in March--confront you at every turn, stacked in towering displays that cry out for a seismic retrofit. It makes you feel, frankly, as if you've wandered into a bookstore run by McDonald's, with dozens of literary happy meals served up lukewarm for speedy consumption.

But suspend your judgment. Back Roads is no masterpiece, but it deserves--and rewards--a careful read.

The book's narrator, Harley Altmeyer, is a boy with a few problems. Let's start with the big stuff: after suffering years of abuse, his mom recently blew his dad's head off with a rifle and then went to prison, leaving the 20-year-old Harley alone to raise his three younger sisters in their poverty-ridden Pennsylvania mining town.

Those three siblings are each a problem in their own right. More focused on getting laid than being a good parent, Harley has to hold down two jobs and keep track of the 6-year-old Jody, the 12-year-old Misty, and the far-too-old-for-her-age Amber, a 16-old dangerously mired in the muck of adolescence.

Women, it seems, bedevil the narrator at every turn. His sisters confound him with their mercurial personalities and strange passions. Callie Mercer, his sexy 30-something neighbor and the mother of one of Jody's little friends, attracts and frustrates him. His court-appointed shrink disgusts, provokes, and annoys as she tries to get to the heart of his brooding anger.

By now the danger here should be obvious. This book, full of dark family secrets and youthful tragedy, has all the elements of a daytime soap opera.

But O'Dell sidesteps melodrama (mostly, anyway) by giving her narrator a hard, nasty voice. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, if tragedy made people nice we wouldn't hate it so much. Just when you start to feel really sorry for Harley, he says or does something outrageous enough--like setting the family's couch on fire because his sister was making out with her boyfriend on it--to make those jerked-out tears dry right up.

Early in the book, Harley recalls the time he told a friend how attracted he was to Callie: "Skip thought I was joking. He said I was sick. He said wanting to nail somebody's mother was like wanting to nail your cousin. And I told him if she walked over and pressed her wet shorts against him and whispered in his ear that she wanted to fuck him, he would shoot off in his pants before he could say anything back."

Which is, I'm sorry to report, exactly how teenage boys tend to talk--in a sort of ugly poetry that's one part Walt Whitman and two parts the stuff you find on the bathroom walls at the gas station. O'Dell captures that language almost perfectly. Indeed, the author is at her strongest when she's crafting characters and putting dialogue in their mouths.

But, alas, she has her few weak spots too, mostly in the vital area of plot. It takes far too long to realize that a mystery lies at the heart of this book, a thorny question of what really happened on the night Harley's father died. Before that riddle surfaces, the book just treads water.

There are other problems. Ironically, O'Dell seems to write male characters better than female ones. The women here don't seem quite real. Perhaps you can chalk it up to the limited view of her male narrator that most of the book's women remain enigmatic right up to the last page. But it's a bit daunting how frequently Harley's suspicions that women are deceiving him turn out to be right on target.

Ultimately, though, it's Harley himself who keeps the reader coming back for more. Carved out in blunt, spare language, he's an undated Holden Caulfield, trapped in a violent hurricane of a family that rages across these pages. By the end, despite his dirty little mind, he's won your sympathy--if only because you'd like to see at least one ship survive this storm.

 

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From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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