Memoir of a childhood waylaid by a miscreant alcoholic father, notable for the enduring affection that comes to the surface.
Money is so tight for the author’s divorced mother in Albany, New York, that she sends 11-year-old Michael off to live with his estranged father, a sometime bellhop and jack of all menial hotel trades. She can barely support Michael’s two younger sisters on a waitress’s pay, and besides, received wisdom holds in the spring of 1959, “Boys should be with their father, and girls should be with their mother.” Michael suspects he is unloved by either parent, but Dad’s scheme to ditch Albany and find a better life for the two of them in California quickly awakens what will grow into a fierce wanderlust. Keith (Communications/Boston Coll.) chronicles their peregrinations with graphic recall and a gift for detail. After the bus money runs out, they face the hitchhiker’s ultimate reality: you take what you get. Often penniless, sometimes on a shoestring that permits, for instance, a “Christmas dinner” consisting of calves liver and canned yams, they stumble westward, city by faceless city. In each venue, the elder Keith makes a show of providing for his son, picking up odd jobs (often via a newly acquired “friend” from a bar binge) but usually screwing up to the point where they go on the grift, convincing some kindly soul that a “letter with money from out of town” is due any day if they can just get a room and a few groceries. Left on his own while Dad is either working or sleeping one off, Michael gets buffeted by life at its seamiest—he’s once even charged as an accomplice to an armed robbery—while absorbing street smarts and coming dangerously close to loving the life he hates.
A relentlessly gritty but good-humored tale of hope and survival.