Runaway Joe by David Hight

Published: February 8th, 2014
Goodreads badgePublisher: Self Published
Format: Ebook
Genre: Literary Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

Note: I was asked for a review by the author

Runaway Joe is the story of a young drifter who has isolated himself from the rest of humanity, both physically and emotionally. Until in the summer of 1972, he meets an exceptional young woman, who introduces him to the magic and power of theatre, taking him on a journey through his own mind, and healing his spirit in the process. 
There’s a huge cast of characters that revolve around Joe’s story, and they’ll guide you through tales that run the gamut of human emotion and ethics.
 
Tragedy and sorrow, as well as triumph and joy are well represented. Grace and elegance, compassion and courtesy are there too. But it’s not all flowers and sunshine, there’s despair so deep, it’s crippling, there is maliciousness, manipulation, unconscionable villainy and horrifying insanity.
 

 

The story is about Joe, Vietnam Vet, now a wanderer who sells arrowheads and artifacts he finds in his travels. We’re introduced to Joe as he is heading to the east coast of America, hoping to arrive alongside a mystery letter he has mailed. Through the early chapters we grow to understand Joe through his reflections and flashbacks on his father and his childhood and we begin to understand who he is and why he is in the situation he’s in. These are very powerful chapters I felt, as they show the relationship and impact a parent can have on their child, as well as the lessons that stay with them years later.

Understanding who Joe is entirely is revealed in snippets as he chats to people who offer him a lift or through further reflections, flashbacks, and conversations sparked by events around him. The types of people and the conversations that happen with those who offer Joe a lift are certainly interesting; some people are very open in discussing their entire lives, while others are a key reason why no one should ever hitchhike. Ever.

Writing about the past is no doubt a hard task, trying to write about an era that has already happened with the knowledge and history of the years afterwards influencing how something is written. The social changes and opinions of the present day are established and by talking about the past the tendency to add a philosophical and prophetic tone to the narrative is tempting and it can also make it appear too reflective.

From early on there are many philosophical discussions and moments with characters, between Joe and his father, with Joe and strangers who offers him lifts, and eventually between Joe, Tom, and Laura, a father and daughter he gets to know after arriving in a small town. These discussions were an interesting aspect, for some characters it suited the context and worked well, while others seems out of place, either because of the character speaking or the context.

Whether it is the 70s setting, the United States location, or the literary fiction genre, I found the dialogue on occasion slightly tedious. I thought that sometimes the characters were saying more things than were necessary and occasionally it sounded out of character or unnatural as a realistic conversational tone.  Character conversations often sound like narrative rather than believable conversation, especially when it does not always uphold this tone throughout. In doing so it makes the characters seem more than what they are portrayed to be, and when it returns to normal conversation it reads as stilted, I never got comfortable with the conversation tone that was depicted, no matter how casual it was intended to sound. I will admit though that like the philosophical discussions, these in-depth and detailed long conversations worked with some people and scenes and not with others.

Joe is usually very reserved but speaks with experience from what he has seen, and on occasion with an acceptable ignorance, Tom on the other hand speaks in a way that I thought didn’t suit his nature, for a man who holds many jobs in a small town he was often preachy and spoke like someone who knew everything about the world. Though being Police Chief, Judge, as well as running a farm could be explained for Tom’s manner, seeing what he does and having age and experience on his side, but with an air of judgement in his subtle lectures to Joe it always felt slightly patronising.

This highly philosophical and in-depth style of conversation worked well for Tom’s daughter Laura though. I saw her as a girl who was very talkative and passionate, very much the philosophical 70s girl who was going to university to be a playwright and actor and was going to be a star. After awhile the intense dialogue and philosophy lessens and conversations become slightly more natural though remain occasionally stiff and stilted. I never felt entirely convinced that there was a casual nature in the conversations but this perhaps could just be a result of genre.

The plot covers a short space of time, slightly longer if you included the extensive flashback in the middle, and in this space of time the development and evolution of Joe’s character is evident. Under the guise of Laura producing her play for the town we see changes in Joe, influenced by the theatre and the lessons learnt through Tom’s guidance and see him on the verge of becoming the man we are greeted with in the opening pages. He is a seemingly calm person but there is a darkness about him that gets him into trouble and as we see him change there are no quick solutions but an eagerness to try and redemption is clearly visible.

With the understanding this is a literary fiction book, which of course comes with certain tropes and expectations, some of these were a bit too prominent I found. In terms of narrative there was a lot of description, not even necessarily about certain people and their clothes which is common, but more in terms of actions. Every action was mentioned, often in extreme detail, and what could be told in a sentence was dragged out, almost tediously sometimes.

One aspect I found interesting was Laura’s play within the story. I find it rather commendable when authors include other unrelated stories within their stories, the act of creating not one workable story but another entirely different one within it is no doubt a challenge. They are also interesting to assess for quality, is it based on how good the reader thinks it is, or as we supposed to be influenced by how it is received by other characters in the book? Either way, the use of the play was a great marker as it allowed a lot of events and character developments on all sides to stem from this one event.

Overall I enjoyed the story. I understand the intention Hight was going for and the nature of the message that was trying to be conveyed, and in some respects I feel these were achieved, but overshadowed perhaps by difficult dialogue expression, over description, and maybe too little plot expansion, and quick fixes and explanations in some cases.

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