One sunny day in early June, sensitive Ben Nelson and brash Tyler Fox ditch their predictable futures in a struggling city and set out to explore the American West.
The road to summer freedom runs from abandoned urban haunts to the jazz clubs of New Orleans; from the deep forests of Kentucky to the enchanted deserts of New Mexico; and from tiny factory towns to the Rocky Mountain plains—all peopled by a cast of drifters, revelers and wilderness-dwellers who have chosen a life far off the beaten path.—Green Valley Press, 2020
I was excited to read the finished story the author Dan Grinthal first introduced during one of my writing group meetings. I was even more excited when the book started in the middle of the action, with Ben and Tyler leaving their hometown of Rochester, NY. As the story went on and who the boys are, why they left their homes, and what they are searching for in the American West isn’t answered, the more I wished the story had started with showing the life the two were so desperate to leave. Not knowing who the boys were when they left Rochester or even why the two opposites are even friends made it impossible to know if or how they had grown or found what they were looking for.
Great care is taken to poetically describe the scenery of the American West. I wish the same care was taken to describe the people the boys met and their stories. Grinthal beautifully describes the storytelling of Wyoming factory workers as:
“Starlit plains and wild, lonesome mountains poured from the lips of the old men in grimy smocks, gushing onto the factory floor like the Rio Grande riding high through the desert after the first spring rain.”
Unfortunately, due to the story’s sparse dialogue, none of those tales are actually told to explain how a guy born and bred in Brooklyn, New York, ended up working in a soda ash refinery in Wyoming. Why don’t the parents of Ben’s crush go to church with her? Why is Ben haunted by the memory of a homeless man he met once on the streets of New Orleans? What happened during Tyler’s date that made him fight Ben when he asked how it went? The unanswered questions make the beautiful alliterations hollow and meaningless.
The lack of tension also made the melodious descriptions lose their punch. Despite Ben wanting to camp amongst the beauty of nature and Tyler wanting to enjoy big cities and their women, the two never fight about the direction of their adventure. Any adrenaline spiking event like a bear walking into camp, a dark figure stepping out of the shadows, running out of gas on the hot Texas highway, or a factory fire, is distinguished in the same sentence it’s introduced in. Which drowned out any anxiety or curiosity of how the boys will get out of this one.