An unconventional friendship arises between two damaged people sharing a lonely upstate New York road in this bittersweet, deeply sympathetic sophomore effort.
On a rural stretch of Route 29 north of Albany, Howie lives alone, 20 years divorced and just turned 50. He’s estranged from his daughter, who’s 24, the same age as Emily, the woman he watches behaving oddly outside the house next door as the novel opens. He watched years earlier when Emily’s young mom came home pregnant, delivered, and soon after died with her own mother in a car crash, leaving the infant with her grandfather, Peppy. He watched when Emily nursed Peppy until he passed away. Then Howie saves her from a fire in her house and she moves in with him. Wodicka (All Shall Be Well, 2008) slowly, separately creates each of these two strong characters as he draws them together through smooth shifts in time and place. Howie’s face has a “gaunt, arboreal lonesomeness” that goes well with his near-Asperger lack of affect. Emily, who is interested in the neurobiology of flora, transplants him from isolation to a society of two and beyond. Howie thinks it may be skill at fishing that helps him recognize and gently pull her out of the horrific night terrors that have plagued her sleep. Their time together is so strange and rich and precisely pitched that it overshadows the rest of the novel, especially an ending that turns, with one arresting narrative exception, surprisingly conventional. That unfortunate contrast seems to be foreshadowed as Emily and Howie, near the book’s end, are descending a mountain road and suddenly find themselves driving through newly built patches of suburbia amid the mountains, where “the lawns looked like they were made of Muppet skin.”
Wodicka’s fluid, expressive prose—dotted with quotable observations often as odd as his players—serves well his weaving of such a convincing, unexpected story from eccentricity, pain, and need.