After an impromptu marriage, Florida teen embarks on a road trip, encountering the usual exponents of absurd Americana, in visual artist Helnwein’s debut novel.
What, exactly, are the potential hazards of Hester Day? Her family isn’t dysfunctional; it’s just that she doesn’t like her mother, father and older sister very much, and she’s similarly blasé about her steamy Gulf Coast hometown. After high-school graduation, she’s offended by her mother’s insistence she attend college, and as an evasive tactic she hangs out at the public library, where she encounters, amid the musty stacks, someone she knows only as Philosophy Man, age 21. The two find each other mutually, vaguely repulsive. But when Hester impulsively decides to adopt and is told she must be 18 and married, she finagles Philosophy Man, aka Fenton, into marrying her when she is of legal age. (The marriage fits into his plans to write an epic poem about a mentally challenged wife.) The two eschew physical contact and Hester stays home, until the full existential horror of her family drives her back into “Arlene,” Fenton’s camper, with her ten-year-old chubby, spaceship-obsessed cousin Jethro in tow. En route to Chicago, the three pick up a clairvoyant Jesus Freak hitchhiker who misdirects them to Kansas, where a kindly farm lady reminiscent of Auntie Em plies them with comfort food. A TV newscast, blaring during dinner, announces that Hester is wanted for kidnapping. Fenton and Arlene, who have a way of ducking out at the most inopportune moments, leave Hester and Jethro to the mercy of a stereotypical potbellied Midwestern deputy sheriff. Inevitably, Hester ends up back home, where the story devolves into wan musings about how one can only tolerate one’s family by escaping it, preferably with a virtual stranger. Sardonic Hester can’t sustain reader interest for this entire journey—the roadside attractions simply aren’t there.
A portfolio of random sketches—however vivid—does not a novel make.