Cliff is in his sixties and is suddenly starting over. His wife has left him, filed for divorce and manages to walk off with the farm and almost everything they owned together. Cliff is no longer a Michigan farmer with a routine. He’s a guy with no home, little money and no responsibilities. This forced freedom is terrifying.
A child’s puzzle of the US gives him the idea to drive across America, visiting every state. He decides that who ever named the states and the birds got it wrong and as he travels he’s going to take notes and rename everything until it makes sense.
Before Cliff was a farmer, he was a high school English teacher. He meets up with a former student and has a painful, hilarious, maddening sex-vacation. He visits a high school friend who has a snake farm in Arizona. He spends time with his successful movie producer son in San Francisco. He fishes. He looks at birds. He thinks about his dog.
I almost tossed this book after the first few chapters. I simply did not care about Cliff. Aside from the English degree and teaching, I had nothing in common with him and couldn’t relate. He was bemused and I was frustrated because things happened to him and he didn’t seem to take any action. All he did was react and in a slow, “what is happening right now?” way. I wanted him to make a decision, get angry, or just do something. Anything!
When he finally started his drive, I became a bit more interested, but I didn’t really commit to the book until he was a few states away from home.
Things still happen to him and he still reacts more than acts, but there was a steady reflective monologue happening. Up until this point his life has been neatly divided into three stages: growing up on a farm, and then teaching high school English, and then running a farm. Now that he’s been shoved into stage four, divorced and homeless, he thinks back to everything he’s learned and slowly pieces together something new.
What I ended up liking about this book was the relatable human experience. While I started out uninterested in Cliff, his wandering thoughts and sometimes bemused observations won me over. He’s just a normal guy who suddenly has to adjust to a new world. Watching him change and grow from state to state was both frustrating and satisfying. At times he thinks everything is going to go back to the way it was. He’ll get back together with his wife, he’ll get back to farming, and things will be the same. Then he realizes that the farm has been sold and most of it has probably been bulldozed and torn up, he might not even like his wife anymore and nothing will ever be the same. Harrison writes these parts well. It’s a normal human reaction to be all over the place when a life changing event happens. We long for what we had, hate what we had, want what’s next and are terrified of what’s next.
As I got closer to the end I found myself caring for Cliff and wondering if he’d become a new person and wanting to know how he was going to adapt to his new world. At times he seemed defenseless and powerless, but then he’d have a realization and I’d think he was going to be just fine. But then there’d be a phone call with his son, his ex-wife, or his crazy former student and I’d get worried all over again. I wanted to shake him and make him realize what was happening, but I also wanted him to figure it out on his own.
The ending was satisfying because it fits Cliff’s character. Harrison doesn’t write something that doesn’t mesh with the rest of the book. A lesser author could have easily made it all puppies and sunshine and then I would have had to stab something.
Harrison has written several other books and I’m curious to see if nature is as much of a main character as it is here. (He wrote Legends of the Fall, and based on the movie, I’m guessing it is.) I think I’ll try a few more of his books and see if I continue to relate to his characters that are nothing like me.
Note to self: Have I really only read nine books so far this year? This seems impossible. I should be somewhere around book fifteen by now if I’m trying to average one a week. Time to turn off the TV and get back to reading!