This novelette length story is Douglas Kennedy’s debut. Just as in The Big Picture, the protagonist is a middle aged man stuck in a rut. However, this character is very different from succesful family man Ben Bradford in The Big Picture. Instead, he is a commitment phobic journalist who drifts through life, never holding down a job for more than a few years, never “doing” anything. One day, midlife crisis strikes hard and he flies to Australia. But not Sydney or Melbourne. Darwin. His plan is to buy a car and drive to Perth. A great adventure. On his way, he runs into a girl named Angie. After a few nights of drunken debauchery, she kidnaps him and takes him to a crazy commune in the desert. A place that it literally off the map. He is a prisoner in all but name in a nightmare of a town with nightmare inhabitants who think nothing of beating him to a pulp if he doesn’t show the right attitude.
Douglas Kennedy writes very well, but his angst filled middle aged men aren’t the thing to fill me with any great desire to pick up more of his books. They are a bit pathetic in that way most people are afraid they will turn out to be. The moral, of sorts, is to do something with your life before you end up a prisoner of that life. In the book, the protagonist is an actual physical prisoner, as opposed to the more commonplace metaphorical one, but the lesson holds true nevertheless. I did enjoy this book. It is rather short, but then it doesn’t need to be longer. Any extension would just be filler. It neatly says its piece and then is done. It is very funny at times, in a tragicomical fashion. Kennedy’s sense of irony is razor sharp. However, this humor is neatly balanced by the tragic situation our hero finds himself in. Sure, he’s a bit of a loser, but no one deserves what he goes through.
Ben Bradford is your typical Wall Street lawyer. Wife, two kids, house in upscale soutwestern Connecticut suburbia, big paycheck. But he hates it. He wanted to become a photographer, but through a combination of societal inertia and parental pressure, he ended up “doing the right thing” and becoming a lawyer. He still maintains photography as a hobby. Now his wife is sleeping around and his marriage is obviously on the rocks. In a heated moment, he accidentally kills his wife’s lover, a loser amateur photographer. And that’s where it all changes. Ben manages to get away with the murder and escape his old life. But will his new life be any better? Can he ever stop running from his past? And on another note: Can a life with a yearly $300k+ paycheck feel like a prison? Of course it can.
When it came out in 1997, this novel was very heavily marketed and hyped. It is just the thing to appeal to careerists who have dreamed of being something else at some point. Meaning all of them. Dreaming of not being in the grinder, of making one’s own hours as an artist or something else, of not being just another suit on the commute. A very 90s feeling after the heady 80s. Stay small, be your own man, don’t waste your life like your parents. All that good stuff. And deeper than that are themes of how you cannot really escape your past. Ben is forced to and does the best of it, but his past will always haunt him. To the author’s credit, he has not painted Ben as some cold blooded killer. Our hero is constantly dogged with guilt about what he has done.
Is this novel the work of genius as was hyped at the time? That’s a tricky question. Kennedy definitely has a smooth, uncluttered style. Nothing fancy, but it serves the narrative well as he focuses on the inner demons of Ben Bradford. If you can look past some of the far too conveniently coincidental plot points, there’s a good story here. As I read, I came to empathize deeply with the destiny of Bradford. His search for that ephemeral thing called “a good life”. His escape from suburban conformism. Having lived for a few years in that corner of Connecticut, I may have a particular perspective. The inhabitants tend to know where they are going in life and deviation from the path is discouraged. Still, some things about the novel annoyed me. There are the aforementioned rather too convenient plot twists, perfectly designed to lead Ben on the “correct” path. After the murder, it all becomes a bit predictable. Where is the chaos so present in real life? There’s also the constant flirt with “art”. In the novel, Ben often describes really great photographers as being passive observers who have freed themselves from the need to obsessively prod at the composition hoping that it will become more artful. But Kennedy does exactly this with his novel. It crosses the line into constructed and pretentious. This detracts from the very good story and thematic exposition within. It is a bit too obvious that Kennedy set out to write “the great American Novel”. But he’s trying too hard, and it shows. Bottom line: recommended, but not unreservedly.