A man hiking on the Appalachian Trail recollects the loves and losses he’s experienced throughout his 128 years in Robinson’s (Life in Continuum, 2012, etc.) epic drama.
In 2087, Carlton Jeffries is documenting his long life. He’s on the Appalachian Trail with his dog, Sam, having thru-hiked it twice before. Born in Tennessee in 1958, Carlton grows into a teenager who finds young love to be sometimes fleeting. He endures a dispirited marriage and spiteful divorce but ultimately starts a family. His unusually lengthy lifespan, however, means that he has to watch people die, including his grandchildren, and reside in a country whose government has all but crumbled. Robinson’s novel, boasting nearly 750 pages, is ample in its historical details. Most events, such as Sen. Robert Kennedy’s assassination or the 1986 Challenger tragedy, are like background music, enriching the story without directly affecting its protagonist. But others have considerable impact, such as when loved ones don’t return from war. The easy-to-follow tale bounces from 2087 to a chronological account of Carlton’s life and his previous times hiking the trail—once in 1976 as a teenager and then, later, when he’s almost 50. Even the loyal Sam has his own timeline: in the 1970s, Carlton gets a puppy named Langley, who, as it turns out, is Sam’s ancestor. Later chapters in the future setting are downright dystopian but undeniably fascinating: noteworthy occurrences include Congress granting power to individual states, resulting in Carlton needing a passport to travel outside of Tennessee, and a ghastly new source of fuel. The Appalachian Trail, meanwhile, is the narrative’s constant; Carlton meets and falls in love with Judith during his first hike, and he eventually shares his veneration of the trail with his daughter, Rachel. The story’s so expansive that readers will grow attached to Carlton, even if he’s occasionally at fault for his severed relationships. It can be a depressing affair since he outlives so many people, but Robinson’s ability to generate an emotional response is without question.
The literary equivalent of
the titular trail: it takes time to reach the end, but the trek is worth it.