Never in a zillion years would I have guessed that a novel that quoted heavily from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden would—could, even—be fast-paced. But, here I am, writing about Cal Armistead’s Being Henry David after reading the entire thing in a single sitting.
“The last thing I remember is now,” it begins. Which is a great hook, as well as being a completely accurate description of the narrator’s predicament: He opens his eyes, and he doesn’t know where he is, why he’s there, and most disturbing of all, who he is. Until he looks into a mirror, he doesn’t even know what he looks like. He doesn’t know how he ended up at Penn Station in New York City, where he got the head injury, or why the mere sight of a police officer fills him with guilt and terror. And he doesn’t know why he’s holding a copy of Walden.
After less than 24 hours in the city—and an event that strengthens his instinct to avoid the authorities—he decides to follow up on the only real clue to his identity, and sets out for Concord, Mass. and Walden Pond. Once there, Hank (he’s going by Hank now, short for Henry Davidson) sets out to remember who he is and what he’s running from.
To a degree, Being Henry David is one of those frustrating stories in which the protagonist could save himself pages and pages of torment and confusion if he’d just, you know, ask someone for help. But Armistead makes Hank’s reasons for avoiding the authorities emotionally believable and logically plausible, so it’s not really an issue. It is, as evidenced by my one-sitting read, an extremely compelling book, and the Thoreau quotes are woven in quite nicely: I can easily imagine this book inspiring younger readers to go and look him up.
Hank’s characterization is a bit slim—he’s quick to jump into the protector role, but beyond that, he’s kind of a blank—but as he’s also dealing with a serious case of amnesia, this aspect is debatable. The issues with the plotting, though, aren’t: The author relies on coincidence after coincidence to move the storyline along, and after enough of them occur, it starts to feel like an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 (with much stronger writing, granted), in that it seems like there are only actually 12 people who live in Concord, and they all revolve around Hank, who happens to be the center of the universe.
For instance? Hank takes a shirt out of the high school’s lost-and-found box that JUST SO HAPPENS to be a ONE-OF-A-KIND SHIRT that JUST SO HAPPENS to belong to his romantic rival. He gets caught trespassing by a woman who goes easy on him because she JUST SO HAPPENS to have a dead son who looked like him. The historical interpreter/research librarian JUST SO HAPPENS to have exactly the sort of checkered past that makes him possibly the most understanding adult ever, and he happens to be almost-dating the second-most understanding adult ever, who JUST SO HAPPENS to be a nurse, which comes in handy when Hank has injuries that need to be treated (and his identity would have been revealed if he was admitted into a hospital). There are quite a few more, but you get the idea.
This is a case in which my opinion and the Kirkus reviewer’s opinion don’t jive: Whereas it was a middling sort of read for me (enjoyable, but not without flaws), Kirkus gave it a star. I’d love to hear what you think.