In this debut literary novel, four thirtysomethings from upstate New York try to make sense of a friend’s tragically short life, as well as their own lives.
Charlie Thatcher has spent most of his adult existence stuck in his small upstate hometown, Hope, working in his father’s auto body shop. At age 31, Charlie begins keeping a passionate journal, writing of his ambitions to overcome his inertia and anxiety, escape his job, and become an author. The novel opens a year later, when Charlie has finally mustered the courage to leave home and “see America.” He writes with naïve enthusiasm of being “alone on the road, driving across country, meeting different walks of life, experiencing things I’ve never thought imaginable,” a move inspired by “that Jack Kerouac book.” Shortly after departing home, Charlie is hit and killed by an intoxicated truck driver. The people closest to him gather in Hope for his funeral. Taking direction from his discovered journal, they vow to complete the trip Charlie never could, scattering his ashes along the way. The travel crew consists of Charlie’s photojournalist brother, an old friend and sexually confused gambler, another old friend (now a California food truck proprietor), and Charlie’s longtime girlfriend. The apparition of Charlie himself frequently rounds out the cast. Lemieux does a nice job of balancing the experiences and struggles of each of these characters. The ensemble has a series of typically locale-specific adventures, during which the players learn things about Charlie, themselves, and one another. The physical journey provides a solid frame for the movement of the plot, and the novel possesses the enjoyable, if expected, pacing and humor of a classic road trip film. Along the way, however, Lemieux makes some indulgent amateur mistakes, such as forcing unearned cathartic confrontations, relying on popular song lyrics, and delivering overly labored descriptions (“He watched his saliva hit the blistering concrete, and within seconds it began to sizzle away, reminding him of the ‘This is your brain on drugs’ commercial. As his puddle of spit evaporated in the feverish sun he thought, We’re all just eggs in a pan out here”). The biggest misstep is likely the assumption that readers will be as enamored with the fetishization of the act of writing as the author is. Still, this is a fine effort for a journeyman novelist.
An earnest, sentimental, and sometimes clumsy road trip tale.