This terrifically entertaining first novel by Barkley (stories: Circle View, not reviewed), set in North Carolina in the summer of 1975, resembles nothing so much as a PG-rated country cousin to Faulkner's wonderful picaresque The Reivers.
It's 16-year-old Gabe Strickland's wry account of enduring adolescence beneath the crazy shadow of his parents' rocky marriage. His ever-hopeful dad Roman is a southern Willy Loman who believes he can't fail as a traveling salesman and customer-friendly entrepreneur: he's a walking grab-bag of wildly diversified energies and grandiose self-improvement schemes. Gabe's mom Gladys, a frustrated woman with poetry in her soul and little or no equity to call their own, eventually tires of Roman's false starts and broken promises and moves out, taking up with his brother Dutch, a prosperous, stable, and—let's face it—dull auto sales magnate. Determined to win back Gladys (whom he genuinely loves), Roman cooks up one harebrained moneymaking scheme after another, finally settling on a traveling-carnival exhibit of “Death Cars of the Celebrities,” enlisting the bemused Gabe to pose as the late James Dean—an imposture to which he consents primarily because Dutch's gorgeous ex-wife, former Miss North Carolina Sandy Goforth, has impulsively joined Roman's retinue ("as" movie goddess Jayne Mansfield—and the object of virginal Gabe's rapt sexual attention). Except for a few too many father-son conversations about whether Gladys really does still love Roman and will return to them, the novel rips right along, powered by five vividly full characterizations and sweetened by Gabe's utterly credible dazed and confused mixture of perpetual horniness, ornery wit, and thwarted affection for both his infuriating, recalcitrant, and ineffably goodhearted parents.
A thoroughly captivating debut. First novels don’t get much better than this.