By James Whorton Jr.
(Free Press, 240 pp., $23)
It’s hard not to root for the narrator of Approximately Heaven, James Whorton Jr.’s superb debut novel, despite the fact that he’s more antihero than hero: “Sometimes when you’re at a moment of crisis,” Don Wendell Brush says at one of his many moments of crisis, “the best thing you can do is become absent.” What makes Don eminently likeable is his humanity, a matter-of-fact decency that shows itself even as he engages in the most self-destructive behavior. Who else leaves a full can of beer in a parking lot for the next drunk to find?
When the novel opens, Don is an unemployed electrician in Washington County, Tenn., whose wife has had it with his drinking, his disregard for their house, his lack of anything approaching ambition. Like almost everything else in hapless Don’s life, Mary’s unhappiness comes as a surprisethough once it’s pointed out to him, he can clearly see where it’s headed. On the theory that someone’s got to stay with their pets, Don quickly decides to abandon their house before Mary can abandon him: If he leaves first, he reasons, Mary won’t be able leave him after all.
The screwball nature of this logic is part of what makes it, and Don himself, so engaging. “Sometimes people conclude that I’m not as smart as I really am,” Don remarks. “Perhaps they’re rightI am not as smart as I am, sometimes. But I catch up eventually.” Don does catch up eventually, but eventually is usually too late, which is how he ends up on an innocent-sounding road trip to Mississippi with his friend Dove, a chain-smoking ex-con with emphysema and a predilection for Natural Light beer and NASCAR. Dove’s also got a bag full of money he shouldn’t have and a couple of other secrets, too. Those secrets drive the plot and theme concurrently, forcing Don into situations where he must confront his way of looking at the world. “Everyone has things about them you don’t expect,” he learns.
Mary is never far from his thoughts, nor is his growing sense that life without her is futile. As with all good road-trip novels, the real adventure here is a journey into the head and heart of the protagonist. Despite the quirky characters Don and Dove inevitably encounter on their journeyand they encounter many, from a wannabe-rock-star motel clerk to a beautiful redhead who agrees to expose herself, if the price is rightthe crux of the story is in Don’s own telling of it, the way it gradually dawns on him that this trip is actually a search for insight, for what might even be called his soul. “We sat around forever,” he says, early in the novel, of himself and his friends, “drinking and delaying the next move.” The road trip is the move that changes all that.
While it’s easy to be impressed with Whorton’s technical skillsthere’s not a scene that doesn’t belong and only a sentence or two that falls flatmore impressive is his ability to get inside the mind of his hero with a minimum of excess, allowing the reader to extrapolate meaning even if Don himself is not yet able to. From a deadpan prose style that captures Don’s character perfectly, what emerges is a story of attempted redemption without the gushy sentimentality that usually accompanies that sort of book. Instead, Whorton’s first novel is finely written and humorous, a compassionate but authentic look inside a struggling heart.
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