Middle-aged man flees pregnant wife to bake bread in a college-town café, in Kitterman’s uneven debut.
Tanner, 47, is a ’70s holdover who has never quite gotten over his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer. The novel ricochets between Tanner’s present, working his latest dead-end job in Tennessee, and his youthful service as a Peace Corps teacher at New Hope, a school for delinquent boys in Belize. When his wife of three years, Katherine, informs him they’re pregnant, Tanner gamely returns to college to better his career prospects. As Tanner watches in transfixed dismay—the character’s standard response to most of life’s vicissitudes—a religious fanatic in a wheelchair pulls a gun in a classroom and wounds three students. Coupled with the strain of impending parenthood, this incident reawakens disturbing memories of Tanner’s New Hope school days. Worse, for 20 or so years now, a young man who resembles Albert, a student at the New Hope school who worked as a baker's assistant, has been turning up and making cryptic remarks whenever something bad is about to happen to or around Tanner. In fact, Albert popped up just before the shooting started. Tanner snaps and leaves Katherine to move into a spartan room rented to him by attorney Croker, who is representing shooting victims and acting as Tanner’s amateur therapist. Tanner washes up at a café where he’s not suffered gladly by the owner, Katherine’s cranky friend Stacen. In a complication that goes nowhere, raven-haired Sara, one of the wounded students, reminds Tanner of Ellie, his stubbornly unknowable ladylove in Belize. The novel’s present-day narrative, with its halfhearted conflict and stereotypical cast of lovable eccentrics, can’t compete with the authenticity of Tanner’s Peace Corps past. Tanner is an inept teacher and the boys are unruly and barely educable at this rain-forest reform school for vagrants and pickpockets, where the headmaster is eager to punish the smallest infraction by flogging.
The Peace Corps flashbacks are less an interruption of the main story than a welcome relief from it.