Traveler, by Ron McLarty

If you followed me here from my old blog, it will come as no surprise that I have deep and abiding love for novels wherein the lead character is required to return to his/her hometown, facing family, friends and past incidents (Beach Music, anyone?). My own long-shelved and terribly written novel centers around these very themes. In Traveler, Ron McClarty does this as well as anyone, and better than many.

I have loved every book by Ron McClarty that I’ve read, and I find it odd that I don’t see many people blogging or reviewing his work. It’s possible I’m just not looking in the right places – regardless, the least I can do is give him a shout out here at thesesandwichdays!

At first I thought I’d start off by ranking Traveler as the second in-line of McClarty’s novels that I love the most, placing Art in America in first place and The Memory of Runningin third, but the more I thought about it, the less honest such a ranking seemed. I’ve enjoyed each of his novels for different reasons and I don’t want to do any of them the disservice of a last-place ranking!

Traveler is a coming-of-age novel centered around Jono Riley and his cohort of male friends growing up in the early 1960’s. Alternating between Jono’s adult present, where he survives as actor and bartender in New York City, and his childhood and adolescence in East Providence, Rhode Island, the novel is part coming-of-age, part mystery, and part love letter to a specific time and place. The novel begins when the older sister (Marie) of one of his best friends (Cubby) passes away in her early fifties. Marie featured prominently in Jono’s romantic fantasies as a boy, and her strong, loving family often served as a rock for other kids in the neighborhood with less ideal circumstances. When they were much younger, Marie was shot by a mysterious gunman who plagued parts of East Providence off and on, and while she survived and went on to live a very happy life, her attack launched the beginning of the mystery that fuels much of the novel.

Travelerweaves between the past and present, doing a straight forward and charming job of showing what it was like to grow up immediately prior to the beginning of the Vietnam War. I have a soft spot for this era – I think because it’s the era my dad and my uncles grew up in, and their stories have always felt tinged with magic to me. From epic baseball games at Veteran’s Park to stolen cigarettes smoked behind the post office – from days playing hookie that ended up with accidental cow-killings to games of Cowboys and Indians that took place across the entire town, my dad and uncles grew up in a small town where everyone knew everybody else (well, I did, too, for that matter but it was the eighties and early nineties and things seem less magical when they are your own life). Sometimes I find male coming-of-age stories more exciting simply because boys and young men were allowed more freedom as boys and teenagers than young women were. The main characters in McClarty’s novel are certainly given a wider range of freedom than their female counterparts – the boys in the book could take off camping at the drop of the hat, and spend their summers on fishing boats and lifeguarding at far-from-home beaches. This kind of freedom provides more opportunity for action and misadventure – in this way Traveler reminds me quite a bit of the movie “Stand by Me.”

After Marie’s death, Jono returns to East Providence, drawn by memories of his youth and the unsolved mystery of Marie’s long-ago attack. He is quickly joined by his girlfriend, Renee, a New York City firefighter, and they combine forces with the retired policeman who handled Marie’s case so many years ago. It’s not a terribly long book, but it is suspenseful and beautifully rendered, and does a remarkable job showcasing the innocence and sweetness of the boys’ relationship while bringing it to a shattering conclusion quickly after high school ends.

For people lucky enough to grow up with a good set of friends, and parents and a community that cared for their successful development into adulthood, memories of youth are always going to be tinged with nostalgia. It takes a certain strength of will, then, not to live in the murky memories of the past and forge ahead with adulthood in all its messy, broken glory. McClarty’s Jono Riley understands this, and it is this understanding that makes him a trustworthy and confident narrator. I found myself reluctant to close Traveler, and the sting of doing so was only offset by the upcoming publication of McClarty’s next novel.

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