Back Roads by Tawni O'Dell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was bound to go there eventually, and I did. I read an Oprah's Book Club book.
Tawni O'Dell's "Back Roads" is a very difficult book for me to rate. It is absorbing from the very start, and O'Dell is a skillful writer with a keen eye for the telling detail. But the main character is sometimes hard to like, and the story is dark, dark, dark.
Nineteen year old Harley Altmyer's mother has gone to prison for shooting his abusive father to death, leaving Harley to work two jobs to support his three younger sisters. The book's blurbs say how funny this book is; while it made me laugh on a number of occasions, the humor is dark, and sporadic. This is not a funny novel. It is filled with flashbacks of Harley's father's physical abuse of his family, the narrator himself often has violent fantasies that seemed to me to be extreme and strange and at odds with his natural kindness, and the whole feel of the dying coal mining area of western Pennsylvania where the story takes place is oppressive and bleak. Add to all of this another murder and suggestions of incest, and one starts to wish for something to feel good about.
There *are* some nice touches. Harley's youngest sister, Jody, is the cutest little girl going. She likes to make to-do lists which include praying for people's "sowls", and carries a stuffed dinosaur called Sparkle Three Horn every place she goes.
The character I liked best (okay, I adored her), is a thirty-three year old woman named Callie Mercer, who is the married mother of one of Jody's friends. She likes art and is surprised when Harley turns out to know about a painter she likes. Here is a woman with a big itch that nobody is scratching. She's sexy, she's complicated, and her heart is in the right place, even if her ass isn't. She's Harley's first, and their lovemaking is hot, but I'm not so sure that's even the real reason why motherless Harley loves her. In one scene, she gives Harley a (sexual) birthday "gift", and he's thinking that he considers everything she's ever done for him a gift.
The writing is crisp and sharp, but in a couple of places, it shows that this is a woman writing in the first person as a teenage boy. For example, in one scene, he speculates what store and department a woman got her clothes from. I don't think he would know or care.
Anyway, even though I got wrapped up in the story, O'dell veers off into violence, cruelty and hopelessness too much for my taste. She doesn't leave any kind of light on for her reader in the end, and so I cannot recommend this book.
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