Henry wakes up from his latest bender in a filth-coated gas station restroom. He’s missing his belt, his wallet, his car, and one of his shoes. This sort of awakening hasn’t been uncommon for Henry since his wife died four years ago: her death sent him into guilt-ridden spiral of self-destruction that he’s certain will end in his own demise sooner or later. (He’s basically counting on it.) The odd thing about this gas station restroom, though, is that it’s in the New Mexican desert, hundreds of miles from his home in California. Henry’s attempt to hitch back home again turns into an American road trip of a grand variety: along the way he meets a number of characters (including a preacher, a social worker, a criminal, and a medium) who not only help him on his journey, but force him to shed some of his self-hating, bourbon-swilling, devil-may-care exterior and confront the still-living Henry underneath. The closer he gets to California, the closer he is to realizing that it isn’t just home he’s headed toward: it’s the rest of his life.
Awkward title aside, Cole’s writing is a feat of frenetic storytelling. The prose is lively, funny, sharp, and frequently subverting the expectations of the reader: the very first page reads like the account of a tortured prisoner of war until it is revealed to simply be hung over Henry in a dirty bathroom. The characters turn a very simple plot into a compelling modern odyssey: the foul, folksy wisdom of bartenders and road companions transfigure simple dialogues into highly entertaining set pieces. The conversations are executed in an organic, seamless way that hides their intention: Cole’s characters discuss philosophy and personal ideology without it feeling forced or pretentious (or rather the pretentiousness is undercut by Henry calling attention to it). Henry himself is a magnetic unlikely hero: a similar character — boozy, snarky, damaged, lost — would feel cliché in lesser hands, but Henry is legitimately funny and largely sympathetic. The desert road with its dusty hamlets forms the perfect backdrop to this morality tale: life and death appear in stark relief, as do honesty and disingenuousness, forgiveness and regret. This is a simple story, inhabited by great characters, told in an exciting, energetic way: there’s nothing else to ask for – well, maybe a better title.
This is a welcome addition to the quirky tradition of American road novels.