In Graham’s debut coming-of-age tale, a teenager flees from abusive households and endures years of turbulence in his life.
Childhood has been hard for Daniel Robinson and his two brothers in their small steel town near Pittsburgh. When their alcoholic father isn’t ignoring them, he’s physically abusing them. The boys’ mother is no help, as she’s in and out of a mental hospital. In the mid-1960s, their father is arrested and the family is split apart. High schooler Daniel moves in with a pastor, whose shocking molestation prompts the teen’s quick departure. Daniel’s life is more stable after he enrolls at Kentucky Methodist College, where he pursues a psychology degree and contemplates joining the U.S. Air Force. But his feeling of happiness is fleeting, as the love that he has for his girlfriend, Elizabeth Johnson, is unrequited. After he witnesses firsthand the infamous shooting at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, he’s so distraught that he leaves everything in his life behind and heads west. During the ’70s, Daniel meets hippies, Vietnam veterans, and a former heroin addict who’s struggling to stay clean, among others. He also works different jobs, including as a counselor at a children’s home. Along the way, he sees some of the worst of what life has to offer as soldiers die in Vietnam and black Americans confront racism. Although Daniel eventually finds the love that he yearns for, tragedy and misery remain constants in his life, keeping him a man on the move.
Daniel’s persistent sense of hope alleviates the general gloominess of Graham’s novel. Although the protagonist is constantly traveling, he isn’t merely running from something. He’s often searching for ways that he can help others; for instance, he shows interest in becoming a counselor long before he gets the job at the children’s home. The supporting characters are striking; for example, despite Elizabeth’s apparent manipulation of Daniel’s affection for her, it’s clear that she craves love just as much as he does. In the short opening, set in the present day, Graham effectively teases the events of the novel to come: Daniel vaguely references his wife, Kate; an important letter that she wrote him long ago; and an unknown girl’s disappearance (“everyone blamed me”). The author’s straightforward, first-person prose also makes aloof characters feel even colder; for example, after someone mugs Daniel in San Francisco, he relates how the locals are generally apathetic toward him, despite his noticeable injuries. The protagonist is also occasionally insightful, as when he asserts that “life is written in pencil….We get lots of second chances.” Daniel’s yearslong story touches on numerous issues that reflect the times in which it’s set, such as recreational drug use. But a later subplot, which Graham wisely highlights, is the weightiest: Daniel comes to the aid of Charles Vickers, an African American man who spent two decades in jail for statutory rape. When townspeople object to Vickers’ release, their ire at both men results in a tragic outcome.
A frequently dour but often profound historical novel.