In a frozen landscape, an unconscious man comes to, feeling the ache of frostbite. Disoriented, he surveys his body for damage and finds a strangely delicate hand mirror in his pocket. A bearded face stares back at him. He has no idea who he is.
Nearby, two men are out hunting caribou. Out of work when the local oil refinery closed, thirty-year-old Travis Barlow is struggling to provide for his family: his beautiful Californian wife, Callie, and their toddler son, Eli. His buddy, Grayson Bucks, encourages him to pursue his dream of opening a fish shack. Gray confesses problems of his own: his long-suffering girlfriend, Lorinda has just dumped him. After a successful hunt, the men haul the carcasses into the back of the truck, covering their bounty with a tarp. Unbeknownst to them, someone else has tagged along for a ride: the mysterious man from the ice, who’s been spying on them. He laid eyes on Travis and felt like he was looking at his twin.
Travis drop Gray off at the local watering hole, Elson’s Pub, and goes home, where the stranger spies on Travis and his family through a window. It’s a cozy domestic scene which gives the man a feeling of déjà vu. He remembers his own wife and the young son he once had. A diary he finds on his person is dated 1898. He suddenly remembers his name: Wyatt Barlow. Finding his way to Elson’s Pub, Wyatt wolfs down a beer and burger, and is befriended and teased by some local fisherman. Wyatt shows them the gold nugget he’s discovered in his pocket, but is distracted by their questions when he sees a newspaper and realizes the year is 2020—he’s in the future. Could Travis, that man who looks so much like him, be his great-great-grandson?
THE ANCESTOR isn’t an account of a joyful family reunion between time-traveling generations, but a suspenseful historical thriller in which Wyatt befriends an unsuspecting Travis for personal reasons that slowly come to light. Getting a man last conscious in 1898 acclimated to the 21st century understandably requires exposition, but some of it is quite awkward: “Wyatt feigned drunkenness and so the man explained about a car, a magical vehicle that uses gasoline to move people around.” Equally cringe-worthy are the novel’s (blessedly) few sex scenes. As Wyatt becomes acclimated to his new surroundings, he becomes a little too comfortable imagining himself in Travis’s shoes: sneaking into his house while no one’s home, washing his clothes, taking a bath and fantasizing about having sex with Callie, her “vagina a lighthouse bringing him in from the dark.”
Still, Goldberg does a good job grounding his fantasy in a recognizable reality. The Alaska in this novel is a dreary place full of grim economics. Travis is persuaded by his domineering sheriff father, Stu, to take a low-paying job on a fishing boat. Callie, waitressing in the pizza joint, steals supplies to stock the family’s pantry; for weeks on end, they seem to subsist on caribou stew. Only Wyatt, finding under-the-table work as a dishwasher, has a different take on his finances. When he’s handed two twenties, they’re “worth about a thousand in his time, and he thinks that he’s never had this much money in his hands before.”
The relationships depicted here aren’t much rosier. Gray, out for a good time, gets hand jobs at the local brothel, pissing off Lorinda, who was holding out for a ring, and aging out of her fantasy of being a mother. She chews off Callie’s ear with her complaining, which Callie only half-hears, consumed as she is by questioning her decision to leave behind the easy life in Los Angeles. Travis struggles to connect with his father; wounded in the line of work, Stu’s also preoccupied by the unresolved death of his youngest son, Travis’ brother Bobby. Wyatt, meanwhile, becomes infatuated with Aylen, a Native American prostitute who takes pity on him one night and brings him into her bed, where he only wants to get warm and confess his story. Wyatt has a hard time adjusting to the realities of Aylen’s life on the reservation: sharing a trailer with her delinquent cousin, the teenagers all around them high on crystal meth and heroin.
All of these threads come together, eventually, but a reader may wonder if the story’s design might have benefited by a few less colors (Bobby’s plotline especially). Where things really get knotted up are in the flashbacks, when Wyatt shoots himself up with heroin in order to recover more of his memories. This trip is a slow slog. (Single-spaced sentences throughout the book make it feel twice as long.)
Moments of promising writing and real feeling, simply-expressed, break away from the short staccato of the book’s opening and buried in Lee Matthew Goldberg’s avalanche of exposition and flashbacks are glimmers of THE ANCESTOR’S gold: a unique locale, an interesting premise, and good (if familiar) characterizations.
~Micheal Quinn for IndieReader