on 11 January 2015
It didn’t really look like my kind of book. I’ve read a lot of different stuff over the years, from horror to thriller, from fantasy to, yes, Bridget Jones. But nothing quite like this. A colleague picked it up off my desk one morning and commented that it didn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d be reading. But by lunchtime I was entranced, and by the evening, I was completely sucked in.
Do you know how it feels? To be a nineteen year old boy living in a run down place in Pennsylvania? To be working two jobs just to make ends meet as you have to care for your three younger sisters? To watch your sixteen year old sister go off the rails by giving herself to any man who wants her? To know that you’re looking after your sisters because your mother is in jail for murder? To know that your father isn’t coming home because it’s his murder your mother has been jailed for? No? Well, neither did I.
But now I think I do. And that is possibly the greatest compliment I can pay Tawni O’Dell. You don’t just read about Harley’s life, you live it alongside him. At some points, it reads almost like a stream of consciousness, at others almost as he is merely observing his own life from the outside, somehow disconnected from it. O’Dell’s writing style when you’re inside Harley’s thoughts is one of short sentences, sometimes merely fragments, occasionally jumping, as if you’re inside his head. This serves only to drag you in deeper.
Harley Altmeyer is nineteen. He has been left along with his three sisters, sixteen year old Amber, who resents Harley spoiling all her fun, which generally involves trying to act grown up by having sex with anyone who offers. Twelve year old Misty, who hates him, and six year old Jody, who seems like any normal six year old. Annoying as heck, in other words. He has to see a psychiatrist, who wants him to talk about things that Harley isn’t really ready to face just now. He works days delivering electrical goods, and nights in a supermarket.
He is full of hate, but can’t express it physically, by striking out, as that’s never been his way. It was his father’s way, and memories of childhood beatings suffered both by him and his sisters prevent him from hurting his sisters, as he doesn’t want to be like his father. Amber has dealt with this by sleeping around, but Harley can’t do this either. He’s still a virgin, and believes that sex and love should go together.
He has found himself in an unplanned, unexpected situation, and is doing his best to cope with it but isn’t, it must be said, doing terribly well. He seems to alienate everyone he comes across in one way or another. He’s almost on a path to self-destruction, but more subtly than most people. The feeling you get is that he doesn’t really enjoy being with people, and would much rather be on his own. Whilst his mother is in a prison built for keeping people in, Harley seems to want to construct a prison for himself, to stop people getting in and getting too close to him. He makes no real attempt to stay in touch with his childhood friend, who is now away at college. He doesn’t answer the questions his psychiatrist wants him to. He fails to bathe, he fails to relate to his boss, he doesn’t want to go to see his mother in jail. He is intimidated by Amber, and barely speaks to Misty. He does his best with Jody, but is restricted by his efforts at keeping two jobs.
It seems that no day goes past without incident. He eventually finds himself in a sexual relationship with Callie Mercer, the mother of one of Jody’s friends. The relationship is beautifully described, starting off as a feeling of love, from the point of view of someone who doesn’t really know what love should feel like. This turns into infatuation, followed by lust once the relationship has progressed into sexual areas. Again, he nearly throws away the only real happiness he has by being too demanding of the time of a woman already trying to juggle a husband and two young children.
Betty, his psychiatrist keeps telling him that he needs to see his mother, to get the answers to the questions that are driving him mad. However, his first visit there proves too much for him, and he finds himself going crazier than before. On his second visit, he finds the truth. And finds that the truth is more than he could handle. From this point on, he’s on a downward spiral, leading to the climax of the book.
Tawni O’Dell’s style grips you. This is by no means a pleasant story. It’s a couple of years in the life of a man who life has treated badly. His growing insanity, his feelings of unexpressed rage, his ultimately hopeless relationship with Callie leave you failing to feel sympathy for him, despite the events that have placed him in this situation. Harley is not a hero, as he fails to cope, and fails to fight back. He’s not a figure for your sympathy as he never does anything to try to change his situation. If he’d tried and failed, you might feel sorry for him, but instead he merely fails without trying. He doesn’t even seem to know how to try.
Despite the subject matter, this book is pretty near impossible to put down. Maybe some of it is schadenfreude, wanting to see how Harley will fail next time. But mostly, it’s just a case of needing to know what life can do to him next. Can things get worse? And they can. The ending is as gripping as any thriller, and has more twists than the back roads of the title. I can’t say anything that won’t give away something important, so I’ll avoid it!
I never really expected to enjoy this book, but I did. The writing flows, and the story takes you on a step at a time, before you realise you’ve walked for miles. The blurb on the covers that always calls a book of this type “captivating” and “beautifully written” is present, but you look at it again having read the story and realise that it is in no way an understatement.
There are only a couple of things that worry me about this book. The first is that someone will read it and try to turn it into a film. Having seen what a mess some books become on screen, to attempt to do so with “Back Roads” is almost doomed to failure. The complexity of events, and the pathway towards disaster of Harley’s life cannot accurately be shown on a screen. The second is to wonder where O’Dell goes from here. Can she ever burnt his brightly again? It seems that many creative artists, both writers and musicians, hit a peak and then try to spend the rest of their careers striving to hit those same heights again. I am not sure that there is another book this good in O’Dell or, indeed, in anyone. I hope that she does not try to write “Back Roads 2”, but leaves Harley well enough alone, and moves on in a way he couldn’t. Only time will tell but I, for one, will be looking out eagerly for her next book.
In the meantime, we must settle for this, which is no means a poor thing. I would urge everyone to read this. Borrow it, beg it, buy it. It will run you through many emotions, and leave you drained by the end. But this is a great thing, and this is a great modern novel. And I am off to start reading it again.
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