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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 Library Journal
In a small Pennsylvania town depressed by coal mine closings, a young man of 19 finds himself thrust into the role of parent. Harley has become the guardian of his three younger sisters as the result of their mother going to jail for the shooting death of their father. Each sibling finds his or her own way of coping with this family tragedy. During his regular visits with a psychotherapist Harley finds some comfort while at the same time feeling disdain for this woman. He is able to satisfy his youthful urges by beginning a series of sexual encounters with an older woman whose daughter is a playmate of his youngest sister. The characterizations are vivid, and each family member generates sympathy. Reader Dylan Baker does a satisfactory job of interpreting Harley's sense of frustration and cynicism. An absorbing novel worth purchasing for fiction collections.DCatherine Swenson, Norwich Univ. Lib., Northfield, VT
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
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!