In this novel by an author acclaimed for his Midwestern-themed short stories, a young man struggles to find his path to a meaningful future.
Readers meet 27-year-old Tom Johnson as he sits in a pub waiting for his classmates to return from a first-semester law final; he has arrived early because he walked out of the exam without completing it. This is not the first thing he hasn’t finished. There was a stint as a member of a band, Self Portrait, down in Buenos Aires, but it never attained the envisioned success: “On paper, our music was revolutionary. The theory was better than the sound; it was better appreciated with the brain than with the ear.” He returned to his hometown, Duluth, Minnesota. Next came Seminary School in Chicago and marriage. Both endeavors ended quickly. Now, at the tail end of his 20s, he has just quit law school and has no idea what will come next. Back at his parents’ house, he stoically faces their disappointment, accepting their implicit judgment that he is a failure. But his father has arranged for him to work as an intern in his own law firm during winter break, and Tom follows through, finding he enjoys much of the work. Nobody is told he is no longer a student. Then he meets Linda Brekke, a captivating young woman, just days before tragedy befalls her family. The trajectory of his life is about to change.
Tom is the first-person narrator, and he gives barely a hint early on that he is looking back from several decades in the future. The bulk of the action takes place in the early 1990s. One of Kilgore’s (Losing Camille, 2010) talents is to place readers in the moment, even if the narrative jumps back and forth through the first 30-odd years of Tom’s life. Each vignette reveals an experienced, meticulous writer of short stories, encapsulating the essence of that individual brief time, although the leaps forward are sometimes abrupt and disorienting. The book’s opening line sets the stage for what will follow: “Life is lived entirely between the ears.” The considerable mental meandering on the nature of the universe and almost anything else that interests Tom— containing more than a little childhood and young adulthood angst—does become wearisome. Here, for example, he ponders musical concepts: “What did it mean to say the treble clef was ‘higher’ than the bass clef? What had height to do with it?...Why do people say I just played an ascending line? Why can’t it just as well be said to be descending?” Yet the reader wants good things for this insecure and grave protagonist who can’t seem to fit comfortably into any identity. When he does finally settle down, it is more the result of fortuitous happenstance than of passion. The final chapters lack the earlier enthusiasm even as Tom finds contentment.
An engaging tale with an earnest hero but a permeating melancholy leaves a lingering sense of disquietude.