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Back Roads by Tawni O’Dell is the story of a twenty- year-old young man, Harley Altmyer, who, on page one, is questioned by the local sheriff for the brutal murder of a woman. From the looks of it, Harley is plenty guilty. His hands are full of dried blood, the color of a dead rose and, while he claims innocence, he can’t stop talking about how the mining office where he and the dead woman were found is a favorite hideout of his, where he liked to come with his friend Skip, now off at college. Harley rambles on about how he and Skip used to try to kill Skip’s little brother, but not seriously. The only time they actually came close to hurting Donny by luring him to sit directly underneath the automatic garage door while they press the button to lower it, Harley pulled him to safety at the last minute. Harley somehow naively believes that these stories he can’t seem to shut up about may help convince the sheriffs questioning him that he is not a murderer.
And Harley is no stranger to trouble. He knows the sheriff because he’s the same man who investigated his father’s murder, when his father was shot in the back by his mother two years before the novel opens. Wow, this is some dysfunctional family. Since his mother has been in prison, Harley has been working two jobs, delivering appliances by day and working at the local grocery store at night to support his three sisters, ranging in age from eight to sixteen. And he’s not happy about it. Harley is consumed with rage over his situation. He can barely keep his anger in check while going through the motions of caring for his sisters. While he sometimes keeps his regular appointment with the court-appointed psychologist, he’s very careful about what he tells her about his feelings. He can tell when she has tricked him into saying something important because she gives him a look, like I was suddenly naked and surprisingly well-hung. Yes, Harley is angry and in trouble, but funny too. I am completely on his side from page one.
Herein lies the brilliance of the writer. O’Dell has captured the voice of an angry, funny and cynical kid very well. One day, Harley tells us, You’re eighteen years old and everyone says you’ve got your whole life ahead of you even though you already feel like you’ve done all the living there is to do around here and you’re too much of a chickenshit to go somewhere else . . . One day you’re that guy and the next day you’re assigned a social worker and a therapist and given the choice of being a LEGAL ADULT with three DEPENDENTS or an ORPHAN with NOBODY. I don’t like what has happened to Harley and don’t want to believe that he could have had anything to do with that murder. I read the novel fast — couldn’t wait to find out what really happened in that mining office and, at the same time, what’s really going on in the extreme dysfunction of the Altmyer family.
And, too, O’Dell draws a clear portrait of the landscape of Western Pennsylvania in which
a beautiful ruined place where the rolling hills are pitted with dead-gray mining towns like cigarette burns on a green carpet. The old mining office sat on the top of steep hill with vicious undergrowth surrounding the place like nature’s barbed wire. Harley describes the view from their house this way: Across the road was a clearing, stretching out green and smooth, then disappearing over a slope into a rolling sea of hills the color of rust and soot and worn yellow carpet. The power lines and the smoke-belching twin coal stacks of the Keystone Power Plant in the distance were the only signs of humanity.
When a young married woman, the mother of one of Harley’s sister’s friends, walks into the store late one night when Harley is working, we’re not sure if she’s mothering him or flirting with him. But we know she’s the one who will end up dead in the mining office and we know she can bring nothing but bad things to Harley. And Harley cannot believe his luck. First she cooks for him, offers him beer and then offers herself. And here I had a little trouble with the willing suspension, the likelihood of this woman risking her marriage for a relationship with someone who is so very damaged, and so very young. But then I kept reading those powerful descriptions of sex, at least from Harley’s point of view and I remember that this basic human need makes seemingly rational people do all sorts of incredible things in real life so why not here? All the while Harley is carrying on with Mrs. Mercer, he is putting together the truth of what happened when his father was murdered, how his father’s relentless abuse had twisted its way into each of the Altmyers, who took it in and dealt with it in their own peculiar, desperate ways.
This novel is beautifully written and well-crafted. It is both difficult to read and difficult to put down. In the world that Tawni O’Dell has created in the Western Alleghenies, no one can win. And I guess, in the final analysis that’s what I don’t like about it. I don’t always need a happy ending but I think I need an ending in which there is some pinch of hope, just a bit.