Country roads lead a grieving grandfather a long way home in this emotional rural gothic by, of all people, one of Twitter’s most popular celebrities.
Debut author Halpern, a retired professor of nuclear medicine, is best known as the humorous crank who inspired son Justin’s infamous twitter feed “Shit My Dad Says,” a book of the same name and a short-lived CBS sitcom. Halpern’s first novel is an affectionate, sometimes frightening and eerily effective drama about coming of age in bluegrass country. Halpern’s protagonist is Samuel Zelinsky, a retired Jewish professor who is in mourning after the death of his wife. At her request, Samuel returns home to face the ghosts of his past. Most of the book is a flashback to Samuel’s childhood with best friend Fred Mulligan and assorted other denizens of this backwoods village. In a long, sometimes elegant story that includes murderous hillbillies, mysterious pools, broken promises and terrible trespasses, Halpern captures life in the postwar South. Sam gains a protector in Ben Begley, a local who saves him from his own stupidity. The elder Samuel often reflects on how these events changed him. “There was something special in Ben and Dad’s way of preparing me to be a man,” he says. “I developed a sense of self that prevailed throughout my life. In some of my darkest moments, their views, taught so long ago, allowed me to persevere, to think my own thoughts and stick to them until I was proven wrong.” The novel captures a unique time, as characters speak in perplexing native vernacular, children carry shotguns, and sins can be washed away by mumbling, “Just foolin’.” A superfluous coda in which Samuel reconnects with an old friend is poignant nonetheless.
Shades of Homer Hickham and Pat Conroy appear in this surprising debut from a dad who inspired a Twitter frenzy.