“I’d rather have all of it back, bad and good, if that’s what it takes to get the good.” So says Jack Peckham to Ida Peevey as she races Jack to, what she hopes, is his home and family, his longed-for destination. Memory is a major theme in this new novel by Kevin Brennan. Some people, like Ida, feel cursed by the bad things they remember. On the other extreme is Jack, whose memory seems to wipe clean every time he sleeps. In the middle is Joe Easterday, a young man with Down’s Syndrome, who tends to remember the good things. The lives of these three characters intersect and diverge on a journey that is at turns harrowing and hilarious.
Yesterday Road is a humorous, poignant, action-filled, meditative literary novel. To describe it with these adjectives makes me feel like I’m contradicting myself, but I’m not. Brennan has managed to write a novel that is as much a page-turner as a thoughtful exposition on memory. The main character, Jack, a man presumably in his 80s, finds himself lost and yet on a mission to “points East” where he expects to find his daughter. He manages his journey mainly through the kindness of strangers such as Joe, who he befriends on a train, and Ida, a middle-aged no-nonsense waitress, who winds up taking both men under her somewhat fragile wings.
Much of the humor in Yesterday Road resides in the scrapes that Jack (and later Joe) get into, the least of which is a carjacking by a former Mormon, cigarette smoking, whiskey swilling outlaw. Then there’s Jack’s penchant for collecting phrases that he likes the sound of: “Suit yourself” and “Tell me about it.” There’s plenty of deadpan humor in Yesterday Road, particularly coming from Jack, although not always intentionally. But underlying that humor is sadness because Jack really can’t remember much of anything, not even his last name. My heart ached for and with Jack as I went along on his journey to find, not just his family, but himself.
Brennan has enviable skill in character development. Every character got his or her due attention, but of course, the portrayals of Joe, Ida, and Jack are the ones that will stay with you long after you finish the novel. Brennan writes with particular empathy about these three people: Joe, with his Down Syndrome, at once a child and yet capable of independence; Ida, with her regrets and her obligations that impede her efforts to help Jack and Joe, although she manages to do all that she reasonably can; and Jack, with his ever-fading memory, his tenuous grasp of reality, his warmth, his kindness.
I have only one criticism of the novel: I thought Ida Peevey was introduced too hurriedly. It was almost as if Joe and Jack had just stepped into the diner when Ida began to assume control over their destinies. It felt abrupt and not quite believable until a bit time later in the novel. Ida has her reasons for feeling protective toward Jack and particularly toward Joe, but I didn’t at first understand her willingness to risk her job just to help them. This isn’t a major flaw by any means, and Brennan does satisfy the reader soon enough when more of Ida’s life is revealed.
I am going to rate this novel as 5 stars, which something I rarely do. Simply, I loved Yesterday Road. It wasn’t just a funny story, or poignant story. It wasn’t just a great story. It was a story that made me think: about the role of memory in how we know ourselves; about how we perceive others who seem different; about whether we can or would help a lost soul, or just leave them to flounder.
So, do yourself a favor and purchase a copy of Kevin Brennan’s Yesterday Road. Reading the novel is a wonderful experience.
Available at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Yesterday-Road-ebook/dp/B00FZX2L22
and Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/368692