A Texas boy wracked by constant anxiety and sadness matures into a directionless adult in this debut novel.
Six-year-old Luke Butler is being raised by his grandparents in a small Texas town in the mid-1980s. While he has no idea what has happened to his parents, he realizes that he dreads going to church and school, becoming so nervous that he can feel it in his gut. His grandparents are kind, if somewhat emotionless, people who offer stability and support but have no cure for his loneliness and worries. In a story that regularly skips ahead five years, Luke finds solace in the garden of his neighbor Mrs. Bergeron. He eventually becomes a gardener in his own backyard, as the varied responsibilities give him a much needed sense of calm. He flirts with other activities, such as baseball, but very little grabs his interest, and he is averse to connecting with other people. Childhood memories are raw: “I remembered feeling like the walls moved behind me and how it felt like my brain turned upside down in my skull when I tried to make sense of things.” In college, there is an (almost) girlfriend who tries to bring Luke out of his shell. Then there is a job at Premier Home Center, a soul-destroying superstore, that pays the bills but does little to enthuse an increasingly nihilistic man. He is lost, aimless, alone, seeing no point in life and wishing for it to end. Finally, though, there is a plan, one that should bring him a brief amount of happiness as he hurtles toward an uncertain future. The structure of Allen’s insightful novel, divided into five-year increments that finish in 2020, keeps the story intriguing and mostly prevents it from becoming a downer. It is an affecting tale, one that creates genuine feelings for the protagonist but also questions life choices by parents and how they can seriously impact others. While there is kindness around Luke, wrongdoing surfaces as well. These transgressions, which become magnified as he spends more years at the superstore, are portrayed in scenes that offer a razor-sharp indictment of contemporary workplaces and pay scales. Unfortunately, the methodical narrative mostly avoids attempts at a deep analysis of Luke’s fragile psyche, which hinders the story’s development.
A perceptive, sensitive tale about the hopelessness of a disaffected young man.