Thursday, September 5, 2013

"Hippie Homeschooling" Has More Spirit Than "American Spirit"; A Double Review

"American Spirit," the debut novel by Dan Kennedy, has gotten lots of press this year, plus plenty of air time on NPR; I assume this is because Dan is the host of the excellent "Moth" storytelling series and a popular radio host. I like his humor and his style so I thought I might like his writing. I bought the book (as a Kindle e-book, for those who care) and read it...
Oddly enough, though I did appreciate Kennedy's writing, I can't recommend his book. It's funny, but the story takes way too long to get going, I never cared about the protagonist, and the humor is so "dark" as to be, well, depressing.
Everyone over the age of 30 (probably even 20) has hit bottom emotionally at one time or another, and depressed people often turn to drink and drugs to "solve" their problems. The protagonist of "American Spirit" does this and we get to watch him wallow at the nadir of his young life--in a passive-aggressive stoned way--for much of the book.
Booklist called the novel "surprisingly beautiful at times..." I really hate this kind of review, since it sounds like one thing and turns out to be, instead, a book that is tedious (un-beautiful, if you will) with a few surprising moments of lovely word-smithing.
As I said, there are moments of humor in "American Spirit", but not as many as in the average Jon Stewart monologue. And the author often goes to lengths that seem quite fanciful to tie up events in the story. Seriously, if dark humor is what you want, and you feel drawn to yuppie angst, there are better books out there.
However, if you'd like to take a journey with a new writer who is not only funny but writes truthfully--and yes, often beautifully--about the times and places we contemporary Americans live in, I recommend the new novel, "Hippie Homeschooling" by Carlton Smith. (Here's a link to the book on Amazon). Set along a western road trip from San Francisco to (among other places) the Salton Sea, Lassen, and even the Four Corners, this novel delivers the goods.
Jerry is an alcoholic whose self-destructive tendencies have landed him in rehab. Once sober, he sets off searching for his runaway son, and soon finds himself traveling with a runaway teenage girl, Lily. Soon Lily's mother joins the misfit travelers on their journey, and the resulting "trip" (and it is trippy, in all senses of the word) is funny, poignant, and true.
Smith has a master's touch for describing locations, even those places we normally whiz on by without a second glance. He also spends time in getting to really know (and let us get to know) the kinds of people that most of us would similarly "whiz on by," dismissing them as "lost causes" and thereby letting ourselves off the hook.
The road trip novel has been done many times, but this author finds new ways to explore the territory--as well as finding actual geographic territory that has seldom been explored. All in all, it is well worth going along for the ride.
"Hippie Homeschooling" was published by Blue West Books, a small publisher I had never heard of before. I'm certainly going to look at their upcoming titles with interest, and I'm quite pleased to hear that Carlton Smith is already at work on a second novel.
There's still time and a few spaces left for those who want to register for SCWC Newport  (Sept 20-22) where I'll be teaching two new workshops and doing the ever-popular "Pitch Witches" workshop with Marla Miller.
hasta pronto!


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