karen's Reviews > Back Roads

Back Roads by Tawni O'Dell
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's review
Aug 08, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: icky-sex
Read from August 05 to 08, 2010

i have developed a real taste for literature from this region lately. and that might be the problem; why i didn't love this book the way danaaaaa does. all of the other books i have read (and i am using the term "region" pretty loosely to encompass mostly appalachia, but blurring around the edges of appalachia-proper a little) have followed a pretty consistent speech pattern and tone that this one strays from. am i being sexist to point out that this is the only woman i have read writing this kind of material? and maybe the things i admire - the succinctness of the prose and the very barebones dialogue that masks some huge concepts are a regional idiosyncrasy that female writers value less? i would love some argument to this, because i know this can't be true.

this is her nine-year-old:

"but i didn't see bitterness or self-pity or some warped nostalgic wistfulness in his face. what i saw was something like pride but pride without ego, something like acceptance but acceptance without ever being allowed to consider any other options"

this just doesn't ring true as a nine-year-old observation. and - yes - the character is recalling the incident as a nineteen-year-old, but this and some other rather advanced psychological observations are being presented as having been acknowledged by a nine-year-old, and that just doesn't mesh for me.

even as a nineteen-year-old, it wouldn't work, not for this nineteen-year-old. and i am not saying that he needs to be an idiot, but the reality of his situation is that he works two jobs, goes to the shrink in his spare time, and is raising three younger siblings in the wake of his family's tragedy. i just don't buy a boy of his age, background, and situation waxing philosophical about art - from having seen some notecard reproductions - and having such sophisticated epiphanies, all the while experiencing hallucinations and blackouts as well as having his sexual awakening. meditating on the meaning of art is inessential - it is unrealistic to have this character speculating on the divergence of gender roles in a post-lapsarian world - this is an intellectual luxury.

were you ever a nineteen-year-old boy living hand-to-mouth mostly concerned with who would pay the bills and why your mom killed your dad?? is this how you spent time thinking??:

"her eyes turned a sandblasted gray as if she had made them ready for me to carve into them whatever horrible image i chose".

"a gray mist had settled over everything, absorbing the weak morning light, and giving the air substance. i stuck my bare arm out into it and brought it back covered in shimmer. i breathed it in deeply, letting its feather weight fill my lungs and roll over my tongue. it tasted sweet and empty like purity should".

and i am not saying that poverty should go hand in hand with inarticulate or unsophisticated speech, but this seems indulgent and inappropriate.

you can have something be poetic and still ring true to the dialect of the region. ron rash, cormac mccarthy, castle freedman jr, daniel woodrell all function perfectly well within the confines of terse sentences that explode with meaning and they make sentences that resonate without sounding forced:

"gun's only good when it's the only gun".

that is one of my favorite sentences ever.

and i could fill the page with mccarthy examples. and even nick cave in and the ass saw the angel - an australian, writing in a dialect that is occasionally sloppy, makes it realistic-sounding because of the biblical nature of the narrator's speeches. they are wildly overblown, but the kid is a) crazy, b) full of a mission of avenging angeldom, c) fucking crazy - so the hifalutin' language works, especially in a character that, being mute, can only express himself in his head, so the contrast works exceptionally well.

daniel woodrell makes such a believable character of ree in winter's bone; in the way she is raising her two younger brothers by herself, in the advice she gives:

"never ask for what ought to be offered".

"don't fight if you can help it. but if one of you gets whipped by somebody both of you best come home bloody, understand?"

she is tough and matter-of-fact and she never shrinks from what is necessary. but it is all done, not with resignation, never like she is giving something up; she is simply practical and does what needs doing. and she never once talks about art.

but i have strayed from my point.

i can see why oprah likes it. she loves the dysfunctional, depressing families, with a soupçon of incest. and she thinks women will like it too. and she is probably right, only this woman has been spoiled with too many similar books that hit all my personal buttons.

the book is not at all bad - the descriptions of the landscape are wonderful - i love the coal seeping through the ground to blacken the salt licks, and the deer being drawn to them despite their slowly being killed by them. the author is from the region, and she does a really good job of building the scenery, but the people sometimes seem either like caricatures (slutty, looking-for-love-and-comfort amber) or just too flowery in speech.but i was never bored, and even though i could tell where it was going, it was still a good read.
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Comments (showing 1-36 of 36) (36 new)

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Dana *nervous

Cynthia Good summer book, Karen.

message 3: by Greg (new)

Greg A band for you to check out....

message 4: by Ken (last edited Aug 08, 2010 04:14PM) (new)

Ken Another great "region" book is The Outside Boy. Some similarities, I'll wager, between Appalachia and Ireland (at least the Irish gypsies). No icky sex, though. Scratch Oprah, then.

Dana I agree that Harley's voice probably isn't totally realistic for his background, but nowhere does it say that he isn't smart and he does seem to have a vivid imagination, so I don't think it's quite as off-base as you do.

Oh well. Thank you for reading it, and at least you won't have to listen to me bugging you about reading this anymore! Although, I still think you might like Fragile Beasts... On the other hand you might find the 14-year-old narrator of that one too well-spoken. :)

message 6: by karen (last edited Aug 08, 2010 08:45PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

karen i just think that in those kind of situations, you have less, not capacity, but inclination for abstractions. if they are about to foreclose on your house and you are finding bloody clothes lying around, are you going to go sticking your hand into mist and waxing poetic about it?? i'm not saying it doesn't happen, i am just saying it never happens in winter's bone or mccarthy. there it is always very grounded in the practical necessities. however, in go with me, there is a chorus-of-sorts comprised of the town elders who sort of sit back and make commentary on the action. but see - they are ancient and they have nothing but time. dunno. it just struck me as unusual. i will read the other one. you know how i love precocious teens!

karen Newengland wrote: "Another great "region" book is The Outside Boy. Some similarities, I'll wager, between Appalachia and Ireland (at least the Irish gypsies). No icky sex, though. Scratch Oprah, then."

oh, also - thank you for this rec - i will check it out at work on tuesday!

Dana Hey, I said well-spoken, not precocious! Precocious is almost as bad as whimsical.

I know what you're saying about waxing poetic. I guess I feel like just because the reality of his life is harsh doesn't mean he can't notice things that way. He has several breaks from reality and seems to exist in a dream-like state a lot of the time anyway so it doesn't seem weird to me that he's not always practical or prosaic in his daily life.

karen well, it's no cymbeline...

message 10: by Greg (new)

Greg precocious appalachia

message 11: by Greg (new)

Greg whimsical appalachia

message 12: by Greg (new)

Greg fun-lovin' appalachia

Cynthia I'm pretty sure you have already read this one, but "Bastard Out of Carolina" is amazing.

karen cynthia, yes, i read it, and i didn't like it, but so many people that i trust liked it, that i wonder if i was just on my book period or something...

greg - whimsical didn't show up, if there was supposed to be a picture there.

Cynthia On my book period! Yeah, the timing definitely has to be right for Dorothy Allison.

message 16: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine I find it difficult to believe that anyone in appalachia talks like that regardless of their situation, intelligence, or age.

message 17: by Bibliomantic (last edited Aug 09, 2010 09:24AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bibliomantic About the 9-year-old's voice (even if recalled at 19yo), tell that to Dostoevsky, most of whose characters, whether young or old, peasants or bluebloods, speak as if they had advanced literary degrees.

karen yeah. russians grow up and get dour fast.

message 19: by Greg (new)

Greg There is picture, can you still not see it?

karen nope.

message 21: by Greg (new)

Greg It's a squirrel. He's looking cute, like a squirrel normally does. That is what passes for whimsy in a google image search. I hate that he won't show up in the comment, but that I can see it from here. It makes me feel like I'm in an M. Night Shyamalan and the big twist is that I can see rodents no one else can.

karen and that everyone hates you!

message 23: by Greg (new)

Greg That goes without saying.

message 24: by karen (last edited Aug 09, 2010 04:00PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

karen hahahaah no i meant shyamalan. every time i see the trailer for devil in the theaters, it gets boos and catcalls. everyone hates him now. poor guy.

message 25: by Greg (new)

Greg I feel the same way, the boos and catcalls. It's awful.

karen but three secret crushers...

message 27: by Greg (new)

Greg well you know there is the handful of people who are counting down the days till Devil comes out. There are probably even two or three that can't sleep because of the excitement and have to go see The Last Airbender daily just so they don't explode in anticipation.

karen confession?

message 29: by Greg (new)


message 30: by Dana (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dana karen wrote: "well, it's no cymbeline..."

that's true. maybe you would have liked it better if there were singing cowboys?

karen no, dude, that is strictly "your thing"

message 32: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Me thinks the nineteen year old boy be...effeminate. No way average joes would notice the particular shade of "sandblasted grey", for that matter, why sandblasted? What does grey look like after that? Why wasn't it just...grey.. like footage of WWII

karen since no one has taken me to task for it, i will assume that this is just the way ladies write male characters from this region - to romanticize the poverty by attributing poetic notions to the characters instead of acknowledging that there can be just as much poetry in economy of words, although it is much much harder to write.

message 34: by Dana (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dana or maybe there's more than one way to skin a cat. (is that something people in appalachia would say?)

message 35: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine I think yes

karen there is a cat....

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