An alcoholic mother hits the road in search of her disappeared son and finds herself in a strange little California desert oasis: a story that doesn’t quite find itself.
Joyce is having problems, and second-novelist Novak (Five Mile House, 2000) doesn’t hesitate to drop us smack down in the middle of them. At the start, Joyce is in her Saturn, loaded with guilt, purpose, and a shopping bag stuffed full of her life’s savings, and barreling down the road toward New York on a mission to find her teenaged son, who disappeared after getting involved with a dangerous girl who might have been a junkie. In the first hint that this isn’t supposed to be a strictly realistic tale, Joyce picks up a hitchhiker who takes one look at a photo of her son and his girlfriend and says that he thinks he saw them at the Hoodoo Bar and Grill in a California town called Lagrimas. After barely surviving a surreal duststorm, Joyce finds herself at the Hoodoo, where the locals introduce her to an autistic teenager by the name of Danny, who speaks only in Shakespeare quotes and bears a striking—but not exact—resemblance to her son. From here on, the story’s improbabilities and digressions begin to pile up like poorly stacked wood and Novak disperses whatever outer-limits suspense she might have built up in the novel’s striking beginning. New characters keep getting introduced, but none of them—with the possible exception of Duncan, a man with a buried past who’s acting as Duncan’s ward—contributes much to the story. It doesn’t help matters that Lagrimas comes off not as some hidden place on the edge of magical realism, but as a half-baked attempt at quirky localism.
Shakespeare and once-a-decade duststorms fail to make Ordinary Monsters into anything but an ordinary story albeit about extraordinary things.