People mature differently. Some grow up early in their teens; others never do. Barry Kitterman's debut novel, The Baker's Boy (Southern University Press, 323 pp., $22.50), concerns people who grow up in fits and starts, trying on adult responsibilities, rejecting them, and then taking them on again. An adult coming-of-age story, the book considers the value of love, friendship and responsibility in a world of diminished expectations.
The Baker's Boy combines two stories—one set in small-town Middle Tennessee, the other in the Belize outback. In the first, protagonist Tanner Johnson is nearing his middle years but has worked a lifetime of menial jobs. After leaving his pregnant wife, he takes the early morning shift in a café where he prepares the day's breads and pastries. Alone in the quiet kitchen, Johnson has ample time to ponder his current situation and agonize about his past.
The second story involves Johnson's previous life as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching delinquent boys in Central America. It was a job he took seriously but one for which he wasn't emotionally prepared. Now, a former student whom he disappointed haunts him. In clipped and occasionally humorous prose, Kitterman weaves past and present together as Johnson tries to come to grips with his responsibilities as a husband and soon-to-be father.
Fear drives many of The Baker's Boy's characters—fear of loneliness, responsibility, intimacy and violence—and that includes Johnson, who, his wife Katherine implies, is "afraid of his own story." That fear isn't without cause. Johnson saw horrific injustice, senseless tragedy and heartbreak during his two years at the New Hope School in rural Belize, a place where the best of intentions could lead one astray. For him, goodness can never again be a matter of black and white. "I had a bad case of idealism," he says. "I had bad judgment." A new crisis, however, brings Johnson face to face with his own inertia and tests his ability to deal with choices that he alone has made.
In The Baker's Boy, Kitterman, who teaches at Austin Peay State University, creates a world of small things that have huge implications—including the realization that, years later, a delinquent orphan boy can influence lives thousands of miles away. Like fellow mid-South author Haven Kimmel, whose The Solace of Leaving Early is similarly involved with self-sabotage, Kitterman values the return to small, hometown life as an opportunity to heal that's disguised as failure. As such, the act of giving up is sometimes the first chapter in an adult's story.
Walton Goggins for Fox. Claire Danes, if you squint, for Barry.
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