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Back Roads Paperback – June 1, 2004
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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 Kirkus Reviews
A strong, thoughtful first novel that hews to time-honored fiction traditions, rooting a voyage of personal discovery in beautifully rendered particulars of character and place. We dont know exactly what kind of trouble 20-year-old Harley Altmyer is in when the story begins with him being interrogated by police officers, but we quickly learn that hes seen plenty of bad times already. Its been two years since his mother went to jail for shooting his father, and two now dead-end jobs are barely enough to support Harley and his three younger sisters in a dying western Pennsylvania town poisoned and abandoned by the coal industry. Sixteen-year-old Amber screws every guy in sight, daring Harley to do anything about it. Twelve-year-old Misty, favorite of their deceased fatherwhich means he beat her more than he did the other threeseems not to care about anything. Six-year-old Jody writes notes to herself (FEED DINUSORS/ EAT BREKFIST) and keeps secrets shes not quite aware she possesses. Harley keeps his court-mandated appointments with a psychiatrist, but resists her efforts to make him open up. Smart and sharply funny though he ishardly anyone catches his ironyHarley is trapped in the mans role he knows is a crock but cant let go. ODell does an impressive job of getting inside the head of a member of the opposite sex, creating a first-person narration of painful veracity as Harley rants against his mother and defends his father (He didnt like his job, but he went to it every day . . . . He was a flesh-and-blood man who couldnt stand it if you spilled something). The dysfunctional dynamics of a family scarred by domestic violence and incestuous longings lead to some luridly melodramatic twists, but the authors compassion and love for her characters shine throughout. When ODells plotting achieves the maturity of her character development, shes going to write a really extraordinary novel. This one is pretty darn good. (Book-of-the-Month Club main selection) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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To my surprise, the unfavorable reviews here were a pleasure to read, and many made me WANT to read this book. I am a fan of dark "depressing" stories, with more realistically troubled characters, so I had to get a copy and find out what had compelled the director of Jacob's Ladder (a very dark film, and a masterpiece in my opinion) to adapt this book for the screen.
And of course, it's brilliant. I couldn't put this book down. Tawni O'Dell is incredibly imaginative and I was easily transported to her coal-mining town setting alongside her colorful characters. Her descriptions, her call-backs, her character design in the teenage boy protagonist was all a joy to experience. Now, I'm struggling even more to wait for the film!