Picks and Pans Review: Six Miles to Roadside Business
by Michael Doane
Some readers might be put off by this complicated novel about an obscure ex-hippie's life on the edge of the Utah desert. Those who are patient enough to wade through the dense first pages will be rewarded with a wryly introspective story about coming to terms with the past and finding a language with which to communicate in the present.
Vance Ravel grew up in Roadside Business, Utah, son of a soldier working at a hydrogen bomb-testing site. When Ravel Sr. dies in an explosion, Vance's mother turns to the church and her son to a drifter's life. With his common-law wife, Cassie, and son Jered, Ravel builds a home in the desert, only to get involved with an odd cult called the Er. The Er—each member adopts a name describing his skills, e.g., Weaver, Painter—appeals to Ravel's need to be needed. The group, however, turns violent, and Ravel goes in search of Cassie (who has fled with Jered) and, not incidentally, himself.
What might be a merely strange novel is, in Doane's hands, a fascinating mix of interlocking stories, unusual characters and unpredictable prose. The author of The Surprise of Burning has created here a book about fathers and sons, love and spirituality—even about politics and bureaucracy. (Ravel Sr., it turns out, walked into a bomb blast so his wife would receive a higher pension than she would if he died of cancer.)
Doane's characters—even minor ones, such as a hooker Ravel meets on returning to town or the neighbor whom Ravel uses as a father-surrogate—are fully drawn. And he writes like a poet: When Ravel sees Cassie again, "everything in him kneels down."
Doane allows himself some earthly judgments, too. "As the food diminished and garbage began to pile up," he writes about the cult's demise, "the Er were gradually reduced to sunup, sundown, communism in all its drear and drabness, and somebody please pass the potatoes."
This novel is so involving even Doane's lapse into a predictable ending is forgivable. Cassie gives in and reconciles too easily, but then Ravel—like this book—is hard to resist. (Knopf, $18.95)
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