O’Brien’s debut novel tells the story of a semisuccessful writer who moves back to his native Chouteauville, Mo.
Paul Hereford has published several novels. His first, The Vampires of Eden, was the most successful—the next six or seven, not so much. For a short time, he was a literary lion on the New York scene, but that time is long past. He has few illusions, however; he wants to get away from that world, and to do so, he builds a manor house overlooking the Mississippi in his small Missouri hometown. The cast of characters there is small. One of the locals, Raphael “Raphe” Gallagher, was Paul’s inseparable friend as they were growing up, and after a rocky start, they rekindle that relationship, as they are, in fact, soul mates. Dilsey is a little girl next door, whose talent for photography Paul nurtures. Michelle, whom both Paul and Raphe lusted after in high school, is now the local TV weathercaster—and divorced. Other characters include Raphe’s live-in, Annette; a few other guys from high school; and Paul’s departed mother, Charlotte. Both Raphe and Paul were serious readers as teenagers and had literary aspirations, but Raphe stayed in Chouteauville while Paul joined the wider, glamorous world. Although Raphe now has a dead-end job, he has not stopped writing, and now, he and Paul are back to the same habits and conversations. (Engaging talk of books—real books, mostly American classics—permeates this novel, and clearly, O’Brien is well-read himself.) Later, Paul buys himself a boat so that he and Raphe can loaf on the wide river. Readers may find shades of Twain here, as the Mississippi is also a character, a mythic presence. The novel sometimes gets bogged down in excursions into literature and political rants, but O’Brien has a genuine lyrical gift, and he clearly loves words and playing with them: “[A]n orange glow revealed where the sun had disappeared, looking very much like the entrance to a gigantic furnace where the fires were being fed, stoked and readied to melt down precious ingots.” Readers will likely grow to like and respect Paul Hereford, and they may look forward to a planned sequel.
A literary novel by a writer with promise.