Tuesday, November 01, 2016

On the Road with Del & Louise: a novel in stories, by Art Taylor

On the Road with Del & Louise: a novel in stories, by Art Taylor (2015), reads like a novel.  There are episodes, but they’re hardly distinct stories.  The subtitle may reflect how the novel was written, as a series of stories that were later joined together. Taylor’s book follows in a long series of American road novels (and films), but only two-thirds of the narrative actually seems like a road story, and most of the novel is stationary, in New Mexico, Los Vegas, and North Dakota. The point is significant because in most road narratives involve accumulating layers of experience and knowledge. In this novel, Del and Louise gradually realize that they love each other, but this happens because of the time they spend together, not the places they visit or the roads they travel.
The narrator in On the Road with Del and Louise is a Southern stereotype.  We see everything through her eyes—she reacts as a sheltered, simple, somewhat conservative woman trying to break out of the life and personality her upbringing gave her.  I had difficulty believing in her dimwitted nature.  Louise’s narration is the main problem with the novel.  She’s a young woman on the run, mostly from her mother.  She’s not especially smart or sophisticated, and she tries diligently to spout homespun witticisms and humor.  But there’s no real self-awareness in her.  For a time she reminded me of Edna Earle in Eudora Welty’s short humorous novel The Ponder Heart, but Edna Earle was a brilliant and often wicked narrator.  Louise, who does have her charms, is none of these things.  She grows increasingly tiresome as the novel moves along.  In the end, she doesn’t seem authentic.  She makes decisions that don’t make sense and involves herself in problems from which she seems unable to extricate herself, when in fact the solution is often obvious.
Her companion Del is something of a mystery who is never fully explained—he seems to have abandoned an academic career or at least academic aspirations (he’s well-read and has an advanced vocabulary which constantly confuses Louise).  Del is more interesting than Louise.  While we come to know just about all there is to know about her, Del remains puzzling and never fully explained.  We learn that he has recently taken classes and may in fact have a degree.  Is he a graduate student who has given up on his studies?  What turned him to crime? He carefully plots out his crimes, usually petty thefts and robberies.  He’s timid, quiet, unrevealing of himself.  He’s also secretive, a trait that endangers his relationship with Louise.  He loves to use multisyllabic words, and he almost always uses them correctly.
The last third of the novel abandons the episodic “on the road” structure.  Del and Louise return to her North Carolina hometown, where they prepare for marriage, try to placate Louise’s mother, and investigate who is trying to sabotage their wedding.  The last third of the novel was such a departure from the first two-thirds that they created a problem in coherence. The last third of the novel, compared to the rest of the book, seems amateurish. It becomes a detective story.  Louise and Del have come home to her mother’s house to get married.  But someone is trying to sabotage the wedding.  Someone ruins Louise’s wedding dress, steals wedding gifts, slashes a tire on Del’s truck.  Who is the culprit?  Both Del and Louise set themselves to finding out.  It could be anyone—maybe Louise’s old boyfriend, or her two best girlfriends from high school, or her mother, who doesn’t like Del.  He obsessively tries to secure fingerprints from all the people they suspect.  He’s also afraid that the town sheriff, whom he has called in to investigate the slashed tire, may discover his criminal record.  This never happens—and there’s no explanation why. It’s implied that the sheriff knows about Del’s past but doesn’t choose to reveal or act on what he knows.
The novel is mildly entertaining until it comes to rest in Louise’s hometown and from there on it’s a slog.

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