Set in the ’70s in a small town north of LA, Sarda’s debut novel is a slice-of-life portrait of the lives of a handful of men connected by a local convenience store.
Over the course of this episodic novel, readers follow characters such as Tom McBride, an alcoholic cop whose life took a dramatic turn for the worse; his estranged son, Mike; Tom’s friend Romey, an African-American cab driver; and Frank Lehmann, an idealistic young man who gets a job at the Cash-n-Carry in order to save up for college. Sarda’s main strength lies in how he breathes life into the characters and their world, both of which feel fully lived-in and authentic. He conjures the ’70s with unforced pop-cultural and social references that ground the story in the era without ever seeming like a laundry list of facts. Meanwhile, he crafts characters that feel at home in the times—which can mean that their attitudes toward particular subjects, such as race, won’t be considered socially acceptable by today’s standards—while also depicting their personal struggles in a way that allows them to remain relatable or, at least, understandable. Frank is particularly likable, and the novel’s strongest section deals with him touring the University of Chicago after being granted early acceptance. Sarda beautifully captures the small-town boy’s sense of wonder and hope at this new, exciting academic world. Unfortunately, however, despite some excellent moments, the story struggles to coalesce, remaining more an assemblage of recurring character threads and themes than a cohesive plot. In its keen attention to detail and observance of mundane humanity, the book flickers like an indie film that zooms in on a few scattered moments in its characters’ lives and then ends on an ambiguous note without ever fully justifying its existence as a story.
Impressive attention to detail, but some readers might be frustrated by the narrative’s slow drive.