BACK ROADS by Tawni O’Dell


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A strong, thoughtful first novel that hews to time-honored fiction traditions, rooting a voyage of personal discovery in beautifully rendered particulars of character and place. We don—t know exactly what kind of trouble 20-year-old Harley Altmyer is in when the story begins with him being interrogated by police officers, but we quickly learn that he’s seen plenty of bad times already. It’s been two years since his mother went to jail for shooting his father, and two now dead-end jobs are barely enough to support Harley and his three younger sisters in a dying western Pennsylvania town poisoned and abandoned by the coal industry. Sixteen-year-old Amber screws every guy in sight, daring Harley to do anything about it. Twelve-year-old Misty, favorite of their deceased father—which means he beat her more than he did the other three’seems not to care about anything. Six-year-old Jody writes notes to herself (—FEED DINUSORS/ EAT BREKFIST—) and keeps secrets she’s not quite aware she possesses. Harley keeps his court-mandated appointments with a psychiatrist, but resists her efforts to make him open up. Smart and sharply funny though he is—hardly anyone catches his irony—Harley is trapped in the man’s role he knows is a crock but can—t let go. O—Dell does an impressive job of getting inside the head of a member of the opposite sex, creating a first-person narration of painful veracity as Harley rants against his mother and defends his father (—He didn—t like his job, but he went to it every day . . . . He was a flesh-and-blood man who couldn—t stand it if you spilled something—). The dysfunctional dynamics of a family scarred by domestic violence and incestuous longings lead to some luridly melodramatic twists, but the author’s compassion and love for her characters shine throughout. When O—Dell’s plotting achieves the maturity of her character development, she’s going to write a really extraordinary novel. This one is pretty darn good. (Book-of-the-Month Club main selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-670-88760-9
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1999


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