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Back Roads Paperback – June 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews Review

Oprah Book Club® Selection, March 2000: Not since S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders) has a female novelist penned such a tough and titillating portrait of lower-class, crime-ridden manhood. Set in "beautiful, ruined" western Pennsylvania, amid Eat n' Parks and Lick n' Putts, Tawni O'Dell's Back Roads follows Harley Altmyer as he walks a raging, self-conscious line between crime and innocence. Why is he being held by the authorities, and what's he so mad about? In the recent past, it's his mother, who murdered his father and went to jail for life. In the far past, it's Dad himself: an abusive, hopeless man. In the present, it's the responsibility for his three younger sisters, which makes him fantasize about smashing their faces in until they "spit up bloody macaroni and cheese."

But Harley still has a conscience--barely. He doesn't strike his sisters; he's been trying to protect them. The oldest is sassy Amber, 16, who's having sex on the living-room couch with townies who abuse her; next is frighteningly stoic 12-year-old Misty, with eyes "a glazed brown like a medicine bottle"; the youngest is adorable Jody, who at 6 pens to-do lists with items such as "PRAY FOR DADDYS SOWL." Overburdened with the practicalities of life, and the ever-mounting losses, Harley has started seeing his own words floating in the air in front of his face. "CLOSURE. TRUTH. MOST GUYS."

This first novel opens well. O'Dell does an impeccable job of making Harley both brutal and forgivable. Here, for instance, he retreats to his basement room: "I lay there until dawn, thinking about Dad, and feeling the same useless frustration I had felt the first time I had seen him piss on a sparkling white drift of pure new snow."

But that delicacy is soon lost, and Back Roads risks becoming an overabundant affair, pitched high, with a roller-coaster trajectory. Harley's anger metamorphoses into an almost bloodthirsty lust for his sexy, middle-aged neighbor, which stirs up myriad forbidden family secrets. Misty, it turns out, has been hiding something. Amber revolts. And even Jody's scribbles turn malevolent. While the writing is good throughout, the tension and plotting assume an unpleasant adolescent posture--bodice-ripping passion and mordant gloom combined. Nonetheless, O'Dell's assured and touching portrait of her protagonist emerges unscathed. You will likely remember luckless, fated Harley Altmyer long after his tsunamic tale has receded. And no matter what the judge decides, you will understand why this impoverished, angry young man was probably the most innocent one of all. --Jean Lenihan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Nineteen-year-old Harley is left to rear his three younger sisters after their mother is imprisoned for murdering their abusive father in this searing, hardscrabble Party of Five set in Pennsylvania mining country. Doubly resentful because his best friend is off at college, Harley spends his days slogging as a Shop Rite bagger and appliance-shop delivery person, coming home to cold cereal dinners prepared by six-year-old Jody. Harley is bitter about having to take over for his motherA"she still had us kids but we didn't have her"Aand he can't shake the feeling that she prefers prison to their home life; a mystery lingers around his father's death. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Amber is sleeping her way through the town's teenage boys and flaunting her body in front of Harley; middle sister Misty, once her father's favorite and his hunting companion, practices shooting. Desperate for relief, Harley finds solace in rough but exhilarating encounters with married Callie Mercer, little Jody's best friend's mother, losing his virginity to her on a muddy creek bank and reveling in her sophisticated, sensitive words. But memories are stirring in his subconscious, and erotic dreams of the Virgin Mary metamorphose into nightmarish sexual visions. In his sessions with a court-appointed therapist, Harley edges closer to understanding his family's twisted dynamic, but it is only when the horrors of the present begin to catch up with those of the past that a series of shattering truths are revealed. By then it is too late for Harley to save everyone he loves, but in sacrificing himself, however hopelessly, he introduces a note of grace. O'Dell's scorching tale touches on all the tropes of dysfunctional families, but her characters fight free of stereotypes, taking on an angry, authentic glow. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: NAL; Reprint edition (June 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0451212452
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451212450
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (423 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #258,374 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

116 of 122 people found the following review helpful By Jeff Paszkiet on February 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I finished this novel in two days.I simply could not put it down.I needed to know what was going to happen to Harley next. Harley's like other teens,except he has too much responibility too soon. With his father dead, his mother in prison, and three sisters to take care of,one may wonder where he finds the time and energy for everything else that happens. I didn't care, all I wanted was what would happen with the next page. He may be a low class Holden Caufield, but this novel reminds me more of the Bean family in Carolyn Chute's wonderful The Beans Of Egypt Maine. If you don't know that novel, read them both. Be prepared not to put them down until you are finished. Anyone who is interested feel free to e-mail me about books,music,etc. Enjoy!
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60 of 61 people found the following review helpful By the_empress on May 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I finished BACK ROADS two weeks ago and I am still haunted by the images and the language of the text. It is a very intense piece of Art. Although, I must warn you that Oprah was telling you the truth, it's a hard novel on the emotions . O'Dell, the author, does not let up! If you are a 'lists' person, here it is in order of intensity: Intrigue, Sex, Abuse, Sex, Secrecy and Genuine Unpredictability. The protagonist, 19-year-old Harley Altmyer is the sole guardian of his three younger sisters Amber (16), Misty (12) and the baby of the family Jody (6) (Jody's spelling is both sad and painfully funny). Rather than become a ward of the state or be put on welfare, a very responsible Harley decides to be "the man" of the house after their mother is sentenced to life in prison for the murder of their very abusive father. I am very tempted to tell you the incredible twists and turns O'Dell takes you with that fact. But you must read it all for yourself. You will NEVER in a million years or pages should I say, see what the end will be. To continue, in conjunction with his two years experience of parenting, Harley also has to deal with his bursting need for sexual comfort. Some of the sexual images in his mind are extremely disturbing and violent. Yet, this author is on her job, she makes you see why the images surface in that manner in the first place which allow us very sensitive readers to carry on with the story. He has to deal with three emotionally raw females, for which he has neither data nor point of reference. Also, there is the mortgage, the two full-time jobs, and a loneliness that is so vast it creates a fifth mouth to feed. If you are one of those, " I can't read another disturbing word of this book, I MUST put it down" simply can't. Back Roads calls you back until your eyes have reached the last alphabet of the novel.
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39 of 39 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Tawni O'Dell has written a tale of The Great American Nightmare. Undoubtedly, the story is a tragedy and, just as an occasional person might not appreciate Shakespeare's tragedies, this work may lose a sensitive reader. But the realism of the work with descriptions that are PERTINENT, makes the reader feel, smell, hear, and taste becoming one with the book. Harley is a victim of circumstance. His family has splintered from the whole of society with the death of his father and he becomes burdened as an individual to bear premature responsibilities. The story becomes a tale of children with misdirected passions brought into a harsh, cruel world too soon. And sadly enough, the work stings of believability. After reading this novel, one begins to ponder the workings of our society upon those who merely seek to just survive. Ms. O'Dell has done an outstanding job on her first book. And until Tawni O'Dell has her next novel in print, I will simply keep rereading this one.
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44 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Nick G on January 5, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Harley Altmyer has a load of responsibilities for a man of his young age.
Harley's father is dead, and his mother is in prison for the murder, so he is left to raise his three younger sisters. Working two jobs, and looking for love in all the wrong places, his story of abuse, incest, and the strange relationships between siblings will unfold to answer the question...can he be the savior his family needs?
"Back Roads" is a fast-paced novel dealing with some disturbing issues. At times hilarious and heartbreaking, while also being gritty and violent, first time author, Tawni O'Dell, handles herself like a seasoned pro; dishing out the heavy subject matter, and at the same time creating a hero in Harley.
This book was an Oprah pick, but don't read it for that reason, read it because it is a well written, well executed story that grabs the reader and doesn't let go. This may not be a book for everyone, but any reader looking for intense fiction should pick it up.
Nick Gonnella
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108 of 118 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"Back Roads" has to be one of the best books I ever read! (And I read a lot of books! ) Harley is thrown into manhood much too early in this debut novel by Tawni O'Dell. If losing his father too early by murder wasn't hard enough, he has to deal with raising his three younger sisters after his mother goes to jail. Each girl has her own distinctive personality, and it's a wonder they didn't kill each other living in that house together. Harley finds out the truth about his father's death and his whole world goes downhill fast. He falls for a young mother of two and things start to go really wrong after his sister finds out about them. Harley wonders about from day to day, drinking beer and not sleeping. This is a book you need to start on a Friday night so you can stay up all weekend reading it! I thought it was awesome and I eagerly await a sequel or something else from Tawni.
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