As Ty guested on my blog on 22nd November, I uploaded his book More Than Kin from Amazon for the princely sum of £2.15 – and I have to say that other than Terry Pratchett’s Snuff, it is the cleanest and least error-pocked text I’ve yet encountered.
Walt Johnson has been a rolling stone most of his life, moving from town to town and living on the edges of homelessness. Now he has run out of time as lung cancer has left him only months to live. Walt then begins a quest to find the son with whom he lost contact decades earlier. Out of money, he lands a job at a small-town restaurant in an attempt to save enough to buy a bus ticket to the last known whereabouts of his son. The friends Walt makes at his new job soon become family for him, especially 14-year-old Danny who is emotionally paralyzed at the loss of his own father in Iraq. Faced with Danny’s struggles to grow up and the struggles of his other new friends, Walt comes to realize he is not only on a journey to find his own son, but he is on a journey to find himself worthy of being a father.
As you may have gathered from the blurb, while Johnston is principally a Fantasy writer, this offering is set in contemporary America. So, an elderly dying man befriends a troubled teenager and gets side-tracked from his quest to track down his son. Does Johnston manage to evoke the sense of urgency and regret expected from a man with only months to live – without lapsing into sentimentality?
If you’re looking for an adrenaline-fuelled slice of escapism, this isn’t it. The writing effectively evokes Walt’s failing strength as he still yearns for the next cigarette and cup of coffee as soon as he pitches up in yet another small town on his constant wanderings. I’ve never been to America, but had no problem envisaging the setting thanks to Johnston’s slick writing and assured characterisation of Walt. It would have been easy to have put a Disney spin on this tale – especially given the forename of the protagonist – but I’m glad to say this didn’t happen. The gentle pace is deceptive as it doesn’t prevent Johnston dealing with some gnarly issues – concerns that globalisation is swallowing up small town values, is one of the recurring themes. I found it fascinating that a spokesman for smalltown America – a country often perceived as purveying many commercially crass values around the globe – should also share the worries I regularly hear voiced here in Britain.
In addition, Walt’s regret at his lapsed relationship with his own son wasn’t ducked. I was impressed at Johnston’s ability to draw out the poignancy of a life wasted on too much booze. It seemed a terrible shame that an intelligent man with the right instincts had ended up living on the edges of society for so long. Johnston’s depiction of a young teenager devastated at the loss of his father didn’t pull any punches, either – and the fact that his father died in Iraq added teeth to the situation. Other social issues were also addressed, such as the seeming growth of gangs of disaffected youngsters who spend their spare time causing trouble.
The only aspect of the book that got a bit treacly for my taste were the passages featuring Libby. Other than that, I feel that Johnston adroitly avoided the temptation to coat this thought-provoking storyline with a layer of sentiment. I’m conscious that so far I may have given the impression that this is a slow-paced trudge through a worthy subject – and it’s nothing of the sort. While no zombies or aliens make an appearance, there is still plenty of narrative tension to keep readers wanting to turn the pages – I devoured the book in two sittings. Overall, this is an accomplished exploration of some of the issues bedevilling contemporary society in a story that still manages to deliver its message with charm and lack of judgement. I’m certainly going to be uploading the first of Johnston’s Fantasy offerings – if City of Rogues is written as well as this, it’ll be well worth reading.