Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Long Drive Home
By Will Allison
New York, Free Press, 2011
182 pages Fiction
Long Drive Home is a skillfully drawn novel which can, and probably should, be read in one sitting. It moves at a tragically rapid pace, and if one would draw it out over too long a time span, reality would set in, and the emotional impact would be lessened. As I slammed the book shut, I was mad—almost as mad as the protagonist Glen was when the whole disastrous affair began. I was filled with so many conflicting emotions; it took me about 24 hours to sort them all out.
This is the story of an unfortunate automobile accident triggered by road rage. Glen, a home-based accountant, has three experiences with road rage one autumn day after he picks up his six-year old daughter, Sara at school. The third incident results in a high school boy being killed as his car flips into the yard across the street from Glen and Sara’s home. Glen had impulsively swerved into the oncoming car, expressing his rage over the way the boy was careening down the street. This caused the boy to lose control and crash. Glen knows he has caused the accident, but in the ensuing interrogation by the police investigating the accident, he alters the facts in such a way that he doesn’t appear to be implicated.
It is at this point that Glen’s life begins to unravel. His guilt is overwhelming; his wife knows he is lying; and his daughter is grieving. Sara focuses her grief on the tree the boy hit, and Glen focuses his grief on the life lost and an earlier incident (the second experience of the afternoon) that may have precipitated his rage. His wife, Liz, focuses on the potential of a lawsuit and decides that the couple should separate for a time as a way of protecting their family assets. A skillful detective won’t let the case go as “an unfortunate accident” and presses to try to find out what Sara knows. As Glen’s life careens out of control, he makes some unfortunate decisions that affect the course of his life and the stability of his family. Glen remarks: “Lives weren’t figures in a ledger, and what was done was done. There were just consequences, how you felt, and what you did about it.”
The themes of guilt, shame, and consequences play out very well in this novel. Guilt is a motivating force in many people’s lives, and Allison does a remarkable job weaving those threads of Glen’s actions with the classical definition of guilt. No matter what he does, he cannot free himself of his guilt and shame, and in the end, he is defeated by it.
On Saturday evening, I went to hear the author Jonathan Franzen at the Dogwood Festival in Dowagiac Michigan. One of the themes of his talk was the ways in which he has dealt with feelings of guilt and shame in his career as a writer and as a husband. I have also noticed how concepts of guilt creep into my thinking from time to time. Franzen and I are from the Midwest and Allison has spent a great deal of time in the Midwest. Do Midwesterners think about guilt more than people from other parts of the country? Perhaps it is part of the Protestant ethic that permeates the Midwest. I could identify with those undertones in Long Drive Home, and perhaps that is what made me angry as I finished the book. Why must it always be about guilt?
There are two plot aspects that I found troubling. One is the spareness of the plot. (Is spareness, a word?) Too much of the back story seems to be missing. As an example, I could not understand why the wife, Liz, would even consider the possibility of separation and divorce, unless Glen had lied to her in the past, or Glen had exhibited a lot of anger management issues in the past. And the reader has no understanding of that. Was she just waiting for an opportunity to leave him? Also, I could not understand why Glen felt compelled to lie about his swerve that caused the accident. Obviously the boy had been drinking and was talking on his phone (these are both explained). Glen’s swerve could have been construed as a way to slow the boy down as he careened through the neighborhood.
The second plot aspect that I didn’t understand is why Glen stalked the man who caused the second road rage experience of the afternoon. It felt out of character for Glen—reckless and obsessive. Had his guilt made him crazy? Had he behaved that way in the past? Much of his decision making was an attempt to protect his daughter, but his actions seemed to belie that aspect of his character.
The third thing that bothered me is that the cover of the book seemed inauthentic. The girl leaning up against the tree seems to be too old to be 6-year-old Sara. As I was reading other pre-publication reviews of the book, I noticed that someone mentioned having seen the cover on a book for children called Mockingbird (its paperback edition), which was a National Book Award winner. The same cover on two books? Why would the publisher do that? It doesn’t appear to me to be fair to either of the authors.
This book has worried me all day. It was an intriguing but vaguely unsatisfying book. One the positive note, I frankly don’t know when I have thought so much about a book; had so many conflicting feelings about a book; or gotten so angry over a book. And that is the greatest strength of Long Drive Home. It makes you think, ponder your own actions, and seek out the opinions of others.
This book is part of a blog tour. It came to me from the publisher. I can’t wait to see what others have written.
The book will be available on May 17. Therefore, there aren’t too many reviews to draw upon. I can direct you to the author’s webpage. It is: http://www.willallison.com/