Western Road Trip
As we roam through the Western United States in the next few weeks, we will not necessarily be following a logical progression on the map, but today’s trip from Arizona- Utah to Nevada makes sense on the map. The literature, however, could not be more different than the photography book, Plateaus and Canyons!
Book: Car Tag (NEW Nov. 2011) by H. Lee Barnes
Perhaps this review should come with a warning message. Readers who like historical romance and cheerful travel memoirs (or cheerful anything) may not like this small novel, Car Tag. The pivotal character is awaiting the death penalty in Carson City, Nevada and he and his brother, a Las Vegas cop who is frantically trying to save his life, and their half brother who has been absent from their lives for many years, all came from a family for whom the label ‘dysfunctional’ may have been invented.
As we follow the suspense of whether Drew will be able to discover an escape clause for his brother Billy, flashbacks tell us their back story. As youngsters pretty much left to their own devices, they sought physical challenges, like touching a car that was speeding down the road, a game they dubbed car tag.
In an interview, H. Lee Barnes, the author, explains his fascination with danger.
“The closer you come to some kind of danger, especially as a kid, the more alive we feel, and the more safe and secure our lives are, in many ways the less we really live,” Barnes says.
This philosophy comes as no surprise after you read Barnes’ biography. A Green Beret in Vietnam, a deputy sheriff, a narcotics agent, a martial arts instructor–all in his resume. Now he teaches writing at Southern Nevada Community College and writes award-winning short stories and novels about the people who live in the non-glamorous parts of Nevada, in trailers by the side of the road in small communities like Beatty where the fictional Billy shot a policeman.
Although he insists that story-telling is the most important thing to him (more than beautiful sentences, for instance), I thought of this book more as character portraits. These are people with sad backgrounds, limited prospects, and various degrees of acceptance of life. The characters surprise the reader, refusing to fit into stereotypes demanded by their background. Billy, for instance, who all his life has seemed hell-bent on self destruction, still appeals with his love of literature, writing of poetry, skill at chess and an admirable strength of character in meeting his fate. Billy’s acceptance of his guilt in killing the police officer–an accident, although a not-surprising outcome of the life he led–makes him a model of existentialism. And sure enough, Barnes, who of course does not like labels, would prefer existential over post-modern for his fiction.
I listened to part of an audio interview of Barnes (giving up because I found the interviewer totally annoying with her “I totally get where you’re coming from” comments). In it he discusses the nuts and bolts of how he came to write the novel Car Tag.
In this case, Barnes had written a short story telling part of the story, then tried to write a screen play based on the story. He gave up making a commercial screen play, and went back to the characters to write a 2nd part in a separate short story. Then this ex-cop, who had dealt with bad guys and totally believed in the death penalty was given a tour of the death row and execution chambers of the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. The experience shocked him and turned him into an opponent of the death penalty. That was when he knew he had to write a novel about Billy’s story.
You are not likely to be moved to travel to Nevada because of this book, but I think it meets the other criteria of A Traveler’s Library, in that it introduces us to an unfamiliar culture, and describes the seedier side of life in a state so often defined by the cliché glamor and glitter of Las Vegas. Barnes also does a nifty job of describing those back roads that make up so large a portion of Nevada starting with the first paragraph.
Most days the sun’s unremitting glare turns the sage and sand flats between Beatty and Daylight Pass into a mirage, a shimmering sea that drifts before the eye. But today a bulwark of clouds looms over the plateau, rendering it featureless as a bog.
And if you ever wondered what life in prison is really like–he nails it. Besides, this is an engrossing read that will leave you thinking.
Does this choice of a book for our literary road trip surprise you? Does your attitude toward the death penalty change depending on who the prisoner is? Ever take a road trip in Nevada?
Disclaimers and credits: The publisher of Car Tag, Virginia Avenue Press, part of the The Nevada Review, sent me a review copy of the book. Pictures here are from Flickr used with Creative Commons license.