From childhood, Harley Jay Buchanan views the world through the eyes of an artist, and his drive to develop this vision leads him from 1960s rural Texas to the dynamic, if pretentious, bohemian neighborhoods of New York in this coming-of-age novel.
Growing up in the bleak, drought-stricken landscape of Separation, Texas, Harley lives the normal life of a farmer’s son, doing a man’s work in the fields before school and playing first base on his high school baseball team. But Harley differs from his family and his pals in his compulsion to express the way he sees the world through his drawings and paintings, a divergence that he finds both thrilling and isolating. When he finds his girlfriend having sex with another boy, Harley hits the road to begin his journey toward becoming a real artist. After a promising beginning with a mentor in Dallas, Harley suspends his art education when his second girlfriend becomes pregnant. Ever responsible and decent, he takes a job in the oil fields to support his new family, coming under the patronage of Wendell Whitehead, an earthy oil tycoon, and his aristocratic wife, Mavis. Harley is still determined to get to New York, the center of the art world, and his torturous odyssey leads him to lose everything before finally taking the first steps toward finding himself. Along the way, he learns just how blind he has been to the most important aspects of his life. Asher (My Big Brother’s Birthday, 2015, etc.) has produced a persuasive portrait of a young artist’s passage to manhood, filled with unobtrusively evocative descriptions and characterizations. While some of Harley’s experiences veer from the predictable to the wildly improbable, the protagonist himself remains refreshingly honorable and doggedly persistent in pursuing his goal to become an artist. At one point, he finds inspiration in his own problems (“During the last few days he had at some level been grinding real-life events into a pictorial soup, struggling with how he might translate each ordeal into a graphic experience”). It is unfortunate that one of the work’s climactic scenes rings one of the few false notes in its comic portrayal of near-rape, but the compelling tale still sustains a hopeful tone throughout.
An engaging, if somewhat conventional, depiction of an artist’s struggle to find a community and maintain his integrity in 20th -century America.