Ancient Highway [Buy Now]
By Bret Lott
Random House, 256 pages, $25
"The story I want to tell here is about a young man and what could have been a family," says Brad Holmes, one of three hardened protagonists whose DNA and threaded stories comprise Bret Lott's new novel, Ancient Highway.
Brad is a Merchant Marine on the USS Denver, who is witnessing the last days of the Vietnam War when a nearby family grabs his attention. They have been rescued from the fighting and are now sitting on deck, playing games and making the best of a chaotic situation.
Each of them, despite the war and their injuries, manages to appreciate their survival, that they are near each other and will probably live to see another day. As desperate helicopters hover above, looking for space to land on the ship, Brad stares transfixed at the family's perseverance and bond. It is a touching and decisive moment, one that shapes Brad's personality and ultimately develops into a collective metaphor for this novel.
Before Brad, though, there was Earl, his erratic, idealistic grandfather. He dreamed of making a name for himself in the movies, or "flickers," as they are called here. Earl created the circuitous wake of hope and bitterness his family is forced to endure. He is the king of Ancient Highway, beginning with his boyhood in Texas, his fascination with movie stars, and continuing on through his train-hopping days and sweeping floors in a Hollywood movie studio.
Earl is the colorful delinquent you can't help but root for, despite his narcissism, which sacrifices everything that stands in the way of his dreams. But this narcissism — some might call it blind optimism or self-confidence — supplies the novel with its compelling arc of hope, loss, and redemption.
Earl is not alone in bearing loss. So too does Joan, Earl's repressed daughter. Her chief desire is to return to Texas, where Earl can find steady work, and Saralee, as his wife and Joan's mother, will no longer have to endure the broken shards of poverty and disappointment that continually stab her fragile disposition.
But Earl's aspirations will not be denied, and so Joan spends her days in a cramped apartment, searching for clues about her mother's time spent singing in a big band and allowing her father to drag her into a ridiculous song and dance scheme. As time passes, Joan drifts into isolation, eventually swearing off her parents for their lack of affection and selfish behavior.
Author Bret Lott, a professor at the College of Charleston, deftly maneuvers across three generations, running a ribbon through the arms of despondent family members, using rhythmic, undulating prose to deliver an assiduous, heart-worn tale. Lott reflects each character's distinct personality with matching prose. Chapters dedicated to Earl's small triumphs are laced with the personal chatter of a man whose primary goal is to see and be seen by the star-shot eyes of Hollywood.
Ancient Highway is a stylized novel of poetic prose that neatly documents some of the toils of 20th-century American life. But somehow the story itself feels rather small. Lott's achievement is condensing three generations' worth of experience and sculpting a heap of information into sharp, concise passages. The reader comes to know these people, the Holmes, and is able to wince, and smile, at the utter familiarity of it all.