Ride Away Home by William Wells
Ride Away Home by William Wells (The Permanent Press, 2014) provokes me into firing up Google to check my increasingly fallible memory on just how many stages of grief there are supposed to be. Although I suspect such a question is inherently flawed because the notion we can compartmentalise our emotions into convenient little boxes is rather absurd, it’s potentially a useful guideline. This progression was first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in On Death and Dying (1969). On a pick-and-mix basis, therefore, people theoretically move from denial, through anger, to bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In this book, a young woman is going through her first year away from home at college when she disappears. Naturally, her parents are quickly on the scene and, as is always the way, her boyfriend is immediately under suspicion. He lawyers up and stoutly refuses any comment. Since there’s no evidence he did anything “wrong”, he remains only a person of interest. As time passes, the probability increases the girl is dead but, not unnaturally, the parents keep hope alive and so live in denial for months. The mother then moves rapidly into depression, decamps into a home for those damaged by traumatic events, and plays little part in the affairs of the world. The father loses his position as a partner in a firm of attorneys — he’s not been putting in the billable hours and a business is a business. As it comes up to the two-year anniversary of his daughter’s disappearance, he decides this is the time for his midlife crisis.
He buys a Harley (something of a departure from his normal BMW approach to comfort on the roads). His private inquiry agent tells him the boyfriend has dropped out of college and moved down south. He therefore plans a road trip. At this point, he has no clear feelings on whether he will actually ride all the way to Key West. Even if he does make it all the way from Minneapolis, he doesn’t know whether he will confront the boy. By temperament, he’s not the archetypical vigilante. The book therefore represents a form of allegory or parable. Much as heroes in classical Graeco/Roman literature set off on a journey not being certain whether they were “free-agents” or being manipulated by the Gods, so our tax warrior feels caught up in inchoate anger. He knows the denial can’t continue, but hasn’t decided whether the boyfriend is a target. As a man whose life has revolved around the dispassionate analysis of tax statutes and accounts, he’s always tried to stay detached. The author therefore invites us to ride with him on a first-person quest to establish a framework of values by which to live the rest of his life. On the way, he meets various stereotypical characters who, whether deliberately or inadvertently, challenge his worldview and strip away some of the outer layers of his emotional defences. Slightly changing the metaphor, think of a meteorite entering the outer fringes of the atmosphere on a collision course with Earth. As the friction builds, the outer layers of the rock are abraded away. For those on the surface of the planet, the question is whether the entire rock will burn up in the atmosphere or will an irreducible core resist the high temperatures and hit the surface?
Because of the nature of the set-up, this is a book that avoids being overly sentimental. Too often, books with grief as their theme end up mawkish and bathetic. This has a sufficiently hard edge throughout that we can watch the man make decisions and not feel embarrassed by how well or badly they turn out. Because he reserves judgement on whether he will actually take revenge (assuming the boyfriend is guilty, of course), our newly-minted biker remains likeable. He becomes a form of Everyman who, like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, leaves his hometown to find out what is to come. It proves to be a journey with some heartwarming moments, and some times of despair and doubt. Such is life when you’re on the road. Why is Ride Away Home an allegory? Because the opening sections are so deeply rooted in reality, we have the emotional problem very clearly defined. But the mechanism for enabling him to answer the questions he has posed himself is deliberately deus ex machina. We’re also presented with coincidences and contrivances which enable all the loose plot ends to be tidied up. Real life is never this neat. Hence when we arrive at the final page and have our answer as to whether this everyman is a saint or a revenge-driven murderer, it feels as though it has emerged organically from the events as described. And, if you were minded to read the book as an extended parable, it could teach you a valuable lesson about life for those who remain after a loved one has disappeared. As a first novel, this is an impressive piece of writing and worth reading if you like your “crime” novels to have a slightly more literary approach.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.