In their twilight years, two best friends, both World War II veterans, confront their mortality in this debut novel.
Nearly Kelly and Earl Johansen both grew up in Campbell, Iowa—a sleepy town where the top employer is a chicken processing plant—and have been best friends for most of their lives. As kids, they shared a penchant for mischief; Nearly was raised by a single mother and endured prejudice, due to his Native American heritage, and Earl’s father was cruelly abusive. They both served in the second world war, during which they stormed Normandy at the same time, although they didn’t realize it until later. Now they’re both elderly, and Nearly lives in a veterans home, his body ravaged by time and diabetes. Earl visits him there often, and spends most of the rest of his time in solitude, dining on TV dinners in the evening. One day, Marlene Goodhue—a long-standing native of Campbell—invites Earl over for dinner. (They briefly dated when they were younger.) She’s hosting her teenage grandniece, Laurie, who’s grieving the loss of her father a year-and-a-half ago. Earl and Laurie form an unlikely but tender friendship, sweetly portrayed by first-time novelist Reed. The elderly man takes Laurie to meet Nearly, who’d recently confessed his deepest regret to Earl: When he returned to Campbell from the war, he wanted to proclaim his arrival on the town’s public address system, but Earl talked him out of it. Laurie tries to convince the two seniors to head to the public works building to perform one last playful act of devilment. Reed poignantly captures the happy languor of small-town life, buoyed more by familiarity and nostalgia than adventure. The author’s prose is simple and bare, and she effortlessly draws her characters with impressive authenticity. She offers up too many subplots, though, creating a skein that’s impossible to disentangle in such a short novel. For example, Earl anxiously frets over a visit from his younger brother, an accomplished writer whom he hasn’t seen in years—but this storyline, which initially seems significant, is mostly neglected. Nevertheless, the story as a whole is affecting, thanks in part to the author’s light touch.
A delightfully sweet drama about friendship and remembrance.