“America” is an ambitious novel. It tells a complex coming-of-age story of four young people, none yet teenagers when it opens. It connects the stories of Mick and Tara O’Brien, who live on a dairy farm outside of Nyack, New York, with that of Daisy Moran, who lives on a dirt road in the nearby valley, and also Troy, whose last name is never given, who longs for freedom and wants to fly.
At the beginning of the book, Mick’s dreams are to play football as a star quarterback and to join the Marines when he is 18 years old. Intelligent, but bored with school, he relentlessly takes risks, but privately yearns to discover what makes life worth living. Tara diligently studies classical piano, seeking to master Haydn and Mozart, but is transformed when she first hears Fats Domino and Howlin’ Wolf. It changes his life. “I like it raw,” she proclaims. Singing the blues, she discovers that it is like “touching God”.
Daisy Moran is bright and loves history, biology and math, but, like Mick, questions the meaning of life, in her case because of a dark family life. Her stepfather regularly beats her and her mother. Troy is raised in a Catholic orphanage after his father is killed in Korea and his mother’s life falls apart. He feels his world is forever constrained by the priests’ beatings and sexual assaults.
The story begins with Troy, as he “looked through the cyclone fence at the dirt road, the golden meadow and the wooded hills beyond. He listened for a moment longer to the din of the other boys playing in the yard. concrete behind him, scaled the high-pressure fence, ripping his shirt off the barbed wire top, and rushed across the prairie climbing into the cool woods.
Escapism, in one form or another, is a central theme in each of the lives of the four main characters. What motivates them initially, beyond youthful angst and sexual arousal, is to feel trapped in the staggering mindset of the time, namely that with the end from the Korean War and Ike in the White House, all is well in the world.
“America” is the first in a seven-book saga by Bond, who grew up in Portland (and was a press boy for the Press Herald at age 10, according to his publicist). Each of the seven is loosely devoted to successive decades and the seismic and pivotal events shaping the country. A line at the beginning of the book presents the quests of the main characters as seeking to find “a way with the heart”. The second book in the series, “Freedom”, was also released.
Troy meets Mick on his first day of freedom in the woods, where Mick likes to walk. Discovering that they share birthdays, they become “brothers” and embark on a walk together to learn things they will need to know in life, as Mick explains. His parents see the natural bond between the boys and welcome Troy into their family.
Mick and Daisy find kindness and sexual pleasure together. She encourages him to study harder. Although Tara initially hates Troy’s intrusion into her family, she eventually comes to love his kisses as they explore sex play. Their relationship reaches a turning point when she becomes pregnant and has an abortion. Troy is then tortured by the idea that they “killed the child”. Their enthusiasm cools, and his life turns to other things, above all, wanting to become a test pilot in order to be able to go into space. After graduating from high school, he begins his journey by attending the Air Force Academy.
Tara ends up at UC Berkeley and becomes a phenomenon in the Bay Area singing in black clubs. His and Troy’s dreams are sour; Troy quits flight school for having bad eyesight. Embittered, he wants to go to Vietnam to kill communists.
Mick gets a college football scholarship but almost fails for lack of interest. He takes a sabbatical year to go to Paris, then to Algeria, and ends up challenging himself to undertake an almost fatal solo journey through the Sahara. Near death in the desert, he asks himself “why am I taunting life?” While in college, Daisy travels to Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964 to register black voters, where she encounters terror and tragedy.
“America” is a big departure for Bond from writing thrillers. The outline of his multi-book saga seems designed to address all the major and seismic political and cultural events of seven successive decades. Among the critical events of the late 1950s to early 1960s that shaped the country and the novel “America” were the Kennedy-Nixon election; the assassination of JFK; the explosive issue of race in America; the sexual revolution; and the growing political quagmire of the Vietnam War.
Bond’s wide reach, however, often exceeds his reach. Too often, his examination of these questions feels more like snapshots than deeper explorations. And he largely dismisses this cardinal axiom of fiction: “show, don’t tell”. Considering the scope Bond sets for himself, the book could have been twice as long.
At the same time, the characters’ existential journeys are intriguing. Mick and Daisy’s stories carry the heart of the story, coming closest to the transformative “paths with the heart.” The author seems, with this project, to seek with heart his own way.
Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer”, was named a Bellwether Award finalist and Outstanding Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound. Smith can be contacted through his website Web: frankosmithstories.com.