When you’re interested in the writings Kerouac and Ginsberg—and the cool jazz of Brubeck and Jamal—but are growing up in Owensboro, Ky., life can be tough, for you’re bound to be out-of-sync with the prevailing cultural norms. Clay’s mother intends for him to go to Vanderbilt, but he never quite gets around to applying, so toward the end of the summer after his high-school graduation he hastily enrolls at Gideon, a small liberal-arts college in Minnesota. There he finds a few more simpatico friends than he had in Owensboro, but eventually even college feels confining, so Clay packs up for New York City, a place more congenial to his spirit. (He likes finding John Coltrane rather than Marty Robbins on the jukebox.) He digs life there (yes, he uses language like that) and hooks up with Mary Claire (aka EmCee), whose radicalism leads to her death as she’s making bombs in her upscale townhome. The explosion puts Clay at risk as well, so he goes on the lam to a commune in Colorado, where the inhabitants labor to make a geodesic dome. Although Bisson takes us through the political developments of the time period, he also creates a weird alternate history—in which Hubert Humphrey becomes president and Martin Luther King is thwarted from becoming vice-president—as a backdrop to the action of Clay and his countercultural cohorts.
Bisson builds his story up in relatively small chunks of prose, and while we don’t lose the narrative thread, after a while the technique becomes tedious.