Back Roads Paperback – Dec 3 2001
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Oprah Book Club® Selection, March 2000: Not since S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders) has a female novelist penned such a tough and titillating portrait of lower-class, crime-ridden manhood. Set in "beautiful, ruined" western Pennsylvania, amid Eat n' Parks and Lick n' Putts, Tawni O'Dell's Back Roads follows Harley Altmyer as he walks a raging, self-conscious line between crime and innocence. Why is he being held by the authorities, and what's he so mad about? In the recent past, it's his mother, who murdered his father and went to jail for life. In the far past, it's Dad himself: an abusive, hopeless man. In the present, it's the responsibility for his three younger sisters, which makes him fantasize about smashing their faces in until they "spit up bloody macaroni and cheese."
But Harley still has a conscience--barely. He doesn't strike his sisters; he's been trying to protect them. The oldest is sassy Amber, 16, who's having sex on the living-room couch with townies who abuse her; next is frighteningly stoic 12-year-old Misty, with eyes "a glazed brown like a medicine bottle"; the youngest is adorable Jody, who at 6 pens to-do lists with items such as "PRAY FOR DADDYS SOWL." Overburdened with the practicalities of life, and the ever-mounting losses, Harley has started seeing his own words floating in the air in front of his face. "CLOSURE. TRUTH. MOST GUYS."
This first novel opens well. O'Dell does an impeccable job of making Harley both brutal and forgivable. Here, for instance, he retreats to his basement room: "I lay there until dawn, thinking about Dad, and feeling the same useless frustration I had felt the first time I had seen him piss on a sparkling white drift of pure new snow."
But that delicacy is soon lost, and Back Roads risks becoming an overabundant affair, pitched high, with a roller-coaster trajectory. Harley's anger metamorphoses into an almost bloodthirsty lust for his sexy, middle-aged neighbor, which stirs up myriad forbidden family secrets. Misty, it turns out, has been hiding something. Amber revolts. And even Jody's scribbles turn malevolent. While the writing is good throughout, the tension and plotting assume an unpleasant adolescent posture--bodice-ripping passion and mordant gloom combined. Nonetheless, O'Dell's assured and touching portrait of her protagonist emerges unscathed. You will likely remember luckless, fated Harley Altmyer long after his tsunamic tale has receded. And no matter what the judge decides, you will understand why this impoverished, angry young man was probably the most innocent one of all. --Jean Lenihan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Nineteen-year-old Harley is left to rear his three younger sisters after their mother is imprisoned for murdering their abusive father in this searing, hardscrabble Party of Five set in Pennsylvania mining country. Doubly resentful because his best friend is off at college, Harley spends his days slogging as a Shop Rite bagger and appliance-shop delivery person, coming home to cold cereal dinners prepared by six-year-old Jody. Harley is bitter about having to take over for his motherA"she still had us kids but we didn't have her"Aand he can't shake the feeling that she prefers prison to their home life; a mystery lingers around his father's death. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Amber is sleeping her way through the town's teenage boys and flaunting her body in front of Harley; middle sister Misty, once her father's favorite and his hunting companion, practices shooting. Desperate for relief, Harley finds solace in rough but exhilarating encounters with married Callie Mercer, little Jody's best friend's mother, losing his virginity to her on a muddy creek bank and reveling in her sophisticated, sensitive words. But memories are stirring in his subconscious, and erotic dreams of the Virgin Mary metamorphose into nightmarish sexual visions. In his sessions with a court-appointed therapist, Harley edges closer to understanding his family's twisted dynamic, but it is only when the horrors of the present begin to catch up with those of the past that a series of shattering truths are revealed. By then it is too late for Harley to save everyone he loves, but in sacrificing himself, however hopelessly, he introduces a note of grace. O'Dell's scorching tale touches on all the tropes of dysfunctional families, but her characters fight free of stereotypes, taking on an angry, authentic glow. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
It took me a while, but at length I found the author was taking reader on a journey. This isn't entertainment as much as expereince and as such it become a fascinating view into the world of abuse and ideas so evil one can hardly comprehend. Perhaps the main character's fear voiced when confronting his 16 year old sister about the abusive guy she is considering living with are most telling, "Would you stay home if I hit you?" I shared his horror that she is going to say, yes.
The language is foul at times, but revealing of the characters background. Some may be appalled at the young man's poor choices, awful problem solving techniques and his constant desire for sexual intimacy in the most animal terms, but is this all that shocking in a character whose entire existence has lacked the most important of all human elements - love?
This book is kind of a look into the lives of children who have suffered abuses at the hands of their parents- emotional, physical or sexual. This families life was completely screwed up! I'm quite used to graphic writing, but even I was surprised at some of the violent thoughts in this book. Which is why I have a hard time with everyone calling Harley a hero- I don't see that.
It's really a sad story. You keep wishing for things to get better for this little family, but it just seems to get worse and worse. I do agree with some of the other readers- this book is a bit flawed. I just feel like the resolution and ending was not quite worth it. And the character development wasn't up to par. I think it could have been improved. Or maybe it was that I was just looking for a happy ending. Be warned, this book is often hard to read, it's a sobering subject. But maybe it's a story that needed to be told.
on children. It is an excellent book for that reason...I hope
it makes readers think twice before ever hitting a child.
Back Roads starts out describing the life of the abandoned
Altmyer kids, and how they cope on their own without their
parents. Harley tries hard to do the right thing by his 3
sisters by working hard, paying property taxes on the old house
and keeping the girls from foster care.
While sympathetic, Harley's obsessive thoughts of sex, violence,
and degradation make him sometimes hard to like. At first glance
his sisters are mostly sympathetic characters--tough, swearing
Amber (whom Harley thinks dislikes him), mysterious Misty, and
little Jody, the only character who remains innocent throughout
the whole book.
You want the characters to survive and maybe escape their lousy
exsistence, but towards the end of the novel you realize that's
not going to happen--too much earlier tragedy leads to inescapable doom, which surprised me.
The harsh, continuous use of the F-word is almost symbolic and
kind of prophetic for what happens at the end. The bittersweet
scene where Amber agrees to not run away from home if Harley
will agree to start hitting her made me want to cry. This is
the legacy that abuse has passed down to the Altmyer children.
The book reminded me of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, except
with a male character. O'Dell writes convincingly as a young
male in the same way Wally Lamb handles the female point-of-view
in She's Come Undone.
There is indeed a little humor sprinkled throughout, with the
wry descriptions of people and their lives as seen through
Harley's eyes.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
I recently read this book, and I was dissapointed. I saw that is was part of Oprah's book club, so i took a chance and decided to read it. Read morePublished on Aug. 27 2004 by Rachel
I have worked with Emotionally Disturbed teenagers as an English teacher for 10 years. In that time, I have heard stories of abuse that are so disturbing I thought nothing could... Read morePublished on July 13 2004
I enjoyed Back Roads, and while I was reading it, I found I could barely put it down. Tawni O'Dell tells the story of a troubled young man forced to be an adult too soon. Read morePublished on Aug. 25 2003 by pitredish
Back Roads, by Tawni O'Dell, was a great book. I thought that Harvey, the main character, was the best character I have read about in a long time. Read morePublished on May 27 2003 by Bridget
The author IS the protaganist in this sick story of incest, violence and murder. The reader is artfully allowed inside Ms O'Dell's mind as she lays bare the desperation of a... Read morePublished on April 18 2003
I loved how the characters past experiences were explained while they lived and struggled day to day. Tawni writes in a way that flows like a river, not confusing at all. Read morePublished on March 11 2003 by Melissa Mai
I started reading this book as soon as I received it and found that I liked the characters in it so much that I couldn't put it down. Read morePublished on Feb. 18 2003 by Sherry P.