This month, true to form, Oprah has picked "Back Roads," by Tawni O'Dell. It's the Pennsylvania native's first novel about human survival in harrowing circumstances. Harley Altmyer is a 20-year-old ShopRite clerk trying to keep his three sisters together after their mother is imprisoned for killing their father.
Harley's neighbor Callie is a 33-year-old married mother of two, who favors short-shorts and halter tops. Harley and Callie have an affair, and Callie winds up dead. (At the beginning of the novel, it seems that Harley did the deed himself, but most readers will figure out early on that one of his sisters is guilty. The surprise, such as it is, is which one.)
The dust jacket has more ambition for O'Dell's story than the novel bears out. Harley's "endearing humor, his love for his sisters, and his bumbling heroics," it reads "would redeem them all." But there's little redemption in this story.
Christianity does play a large role in "Back Roads," but it fails Harley on every count. One character, rather unsubtly named Church, seems to be O'Dell's way of saying that Christianity is about following and enforcing arbitrary rules. When Harley is told to stock bananas in the cereal aisle, Church protests. "It's wrong. Bananas can't go with cereal."
Toward the end of the novel, Harley rediscovers his mother's Bible from which she read to him when he was a boy. Harley had preferred Scripture to "Curious George" or Beatrix Potter because "everything in it was true." Eventually, though, Harley stopped believing Scripture; he even felt "a little superior" to his mother, because she "never stopped believing."
Indeed, the Bible fails to protect Harley when he takes it to bed with him one night, a talisman against evil impulses. But his sister crawls in next to him, and, half-asleep, he fondles her anyway. He tries to use the Bible to shield his eyes from her nakedness when he realizes his terrible deed, but the sacred book is no protection against sin.
Harley's redemption comes as an epiphany in the book's final pages. Truth, he sees, is not in the Bible, but all around him, and he has ignored it "because I don't love it. The TRUTH is the TRUTH sucks sometimes . . . . [T]he TRUTH is I've already wasted so much of my life lying to myself."
If that is Harley's redemption, color me unsaved. Redemption rarely comes through adolescent pseudo-profundity. O'Dell's attempt to dignify her character's moment of clarity by repeatedly rendering the word TRUTH in capital letters only makes it more reminiscent of graffiti scrawled on a high school bathroom wall. O'Dell wants us to believe that Harley has changed by facing the truth, but he doesn't grow up at all.