Review of The Long Drive Home by Will Allison

Telling lies should be easy. We’ve all made off with or fib or two to avoid punishment or to get what we want. Fiction writers and actors take commerce in elaborate conceits designed to suspend disbelief for an hour, for the length of a book. Consider then the prospects of a lie when both our personal preservation and our children’s futures are at stake. Biology tells us the survival of our genes eclipses every other concern, and everyone knows that the guilty may avoid just sentencing if they can afford a decent defense team. So what makes us confess? What compels us to tell the truth? Even if we know our friends and family—if attuned to our betrayals—would sever ties and never speak to us again? And what if the culprit can’t imagine an eye in the sky to tally his or her murders or misdemeanors? Would we still seek to purge our misdeeds to those who look up to us most? Or would we rather continue to conceal our blighted consciences and take our chances on a day of reckoning that seems unlikely to come?

Will Allison’s second novel, Long Drive Home (Free Press), hurls its protagonist Glen Bauer headlong into this murky ethical terrain after a moment of road rage ends with the “accidental” death of teenager Juwan Richards and marks the beginning of the end of Glen’s once happy household.

“I very much wanted to give him [Glen] as many chances to be less guilty in his own mind. I wanted to let him off the hook,” Allison says. Certainly, the text abounds with a haven of evasions for Glen: his six-year-old daughter, Sara (and only other witness to the wreck), seems to remember very little of the actual accident; the mother of the deceased Tawana is married to a radiologist and wants to move own without civil trail; the teen driver was found to be not only speeding, but drunk and talking on his cell phone at the moment his Jaguar collided with a tree; and then there’s even Glen’s wife Liz who—keen to the designations of guilt in both civil and criminal courts—reminds him that he wasn’t totally at fault and that “Having a guilty conscience isn’t the same as being guilty” (72). Still, Glen, hounded by a relentless detective named Rizzo, secretly and subconsciously senses his complicity in Juwan’s death and later seeks both punishment and redemption to his personal peril, even when it becomes evident that he will be let off the hook for vehicular manslaughter.

Beyond road rage, the impetus for this novel—as much of the setting—sprouted from the author’s personal life as a stay-at-home dad in New Jersey: “We moved here from Indianapolis, and then before that from we lived in Cincinnati and Columbus. I really didn’t think it would be that different driving here than anywhere else, but it really was different…I spend a lot more time in the car than I’d like to, and a lot more time exposed to the local traffic.”

When asked about why people seem more apt to become hostile on the road than in line a crowded grocery store or at a ballpark, Allison offers this insight: “You’re enclosed in a car, so you have a since of anonymity in dealing with other drivers, and unless you’re driving in your own neighborhood—a few blocks from your house—you have no expectation that you’re ever going to have to deal with this person again. There’s just a lot less reason to hold your anger in. And also the stakes are so much higher when you’re in this giant machine and you can get killed and kill someone pretty easily.”

Like Glen, Will—as any parent—only wants to ferry his daughter to school safely and to expect that she can pedal her bike down the street without some maniac running her off the road. When confronted with other drivers’ recklessness, Will Allison also confesses—that like Glen—he finds it difficult to suppress his paternal indignation in this anecdote about the moment the ideas behind Long Drive Home originally took root:

“I had come out to get the newspaper one morning and a car was just flying down the street, and even though at that early there’re weren’t any kids out, no joggers and nobody walking their dogs, I still had this momentary impulse where I just wanted to pick up the paper and throw it at the car…Of course I then immediately realized what a stupid idea that was and how I could’ve caused an accident. But then the writer part of me started thinking so what if no one saw it? What would happen then?”

Of course, the circumstances in the novel are different in that Glen served his car into the other lane to scare Juwan into slowing down, but the dark necessity that ensues hatches from a similar line of questioning.

Like the Chandleresque noir aura seeded in the title, Long Drive Home zeros in on the facts beyond hypothetical evasion. Glen is liable, he knows it. More than that, he knows his daughter knows it, and even schemes—to his eventual shame—to keep his daughter out of therapy fearing she might confide the events which led up to the crash. Page after page, Glen must squirm and twist the facts in his daughter’s mind and as the investigation unfolds he must convince her that she did not see what she saw. Only at the end does Glen finally confront the bleak results of his perpetual deceit when he asks his daughter:

“Do you think it was my fault?”

She drummed her feet against the back of the passenger seat. The light changed. We turned onto West Montrose, then Vose. “Not if you didn’t mean to,” she said, finally. “You didn’t mean to scare him.”

My knuckles went white on the steering wheel. So there it was. She’d known all along, or at least suspected. Of course I’d meant to scare him. If she hadn’t seen it in my eyes as I cut the wheel that day, watching me in the review mirror as she was watching me now, then it was only a matter of time before the full truth dawned on her.

“But you always said it was his fault,” I reminded her. “You never said anything about it to me.”

She resumed kicking the seat. “I know. I thought you’d be upset.” [178]

In this way, Allison cleverly demonstrates how crimes, when kept secret, implicate—and even traumatize—others in perpetuating a charade of fecklessness. This whirlpool of deception envelopes Glen and entices the reader, especially when Liz—Glen’s wife—comes up with the idea to divorce in order to indemnify her and their daughter in the advent of a lawsuit. Still, this faux separation doomed itself from the onset considering how the terms of this tacit pact, being unspoken, never had a chance to articulate themselves:

“…I wondered if Liz really believed what she’d said about the accident being Juwan’s fault, or if it was just her way of circling the wagons. For that matter, had she really believed me? Surely the thought that I might still be lying had crossed her mind. Maybe it was a case of not wanting to know more. Maybe we’d already entered into an unspoken agreement where she wouldn’t ask and I wouldn’t tell. Of course, the problem with an unspoken agreement is that you can never be sure it exists.” [55]

Gradually, Glen’s left to fend against his own conscience as he’s forced to move out and dissemble a divorce until the two year period for civil litigation passes. His isolation slowly sizzles into Dostoyevskian claustrophobia, particularly under the scrutiny of Rizzo, the seasoned detective:

“But why did you cut the wheel?” Rizzo asks Glen, later stating: “Your front tires—they’re turned toward the curb. Away from your driveway.”

“I don’t know. I guess I still had a hand on the wheel when I reached for her [Sara].” I mimed the action of holding the steering wheel with my left hand, turning it as I reached back with my right. “I must have turned it without meaning to.”

Instead of stony disbelief I was expecting, Rizzo said, “Makes sense.”

I’d managed to regain my composure, but the fact that he once again seemed so willing to take me at my word was starting to worry me. A guilty conscience can be tricky that way; knowing I was lying made it hard to believe anyone else could believe me. I couldn’t help thinking he was just biding his time, lulling me, waiting for me to drop my guard.” [76-77]

On perpetual high-alert, the simple presence of others crushes Glen as he jostles and deflects blame. Either they must be persuaded to his cause or repelled away. This defensiveness later develops into paranoia, twisting every encounter with even those closest to him into an accusation.

Though Long Drive Home differs drastically from Allison’s debut What You Have Left, which was selected for both Barnes & Nobel’s Discover Great New Writers as well as a notable book by the San Francisco Chronicle, the difference only demonstrates this author’s versatility in pumping out remarkably sharp prose.

As a narrative of events, nothing gets dumped onto the reader. Everything relevant to the scene comes out precisely when needed to expedite plot, and we never meander aimlessly through back story. We move scene by scene with vital and visceral accuracy. Given that this novel employs the unequivocally tricky double-I narrative technique (where the first person narrator speaks his or her gained wisdom in the narration of past events), this accomplishment—in terms of craft—certainly lives up to Allison’s standards of a good read:

“I don’t like reading a book where information is withheld from me when I think that it should be given as a function of the view points. And withholding information is infuriating just to keep me turning the page…I look for a story that gives me a good sense of what’s at stake early on and keeps me turning the pages. The entertainment value of reading is important to me…I just read an essay by Lev Grossman who talks about how modernists changed the novel in the early 20th century and how it went from being Charles Dickens—where you always know whose talking in the book and what’s happening—as compared to The Sound and the Fury and Ulysses, and how the novel became a difficult thing, and if the novel wasn’t difficult then it was probably low-brow. He makes the argument that contemporary novelists are starting to move away from that idea, and are writing books that…can still be high-brow while being a page turner.”

While writing, Allison likes to keep a couple books on the table in case he gets stuck. The titles he went back to the most while composing Long Drive Home, where Slaughter House Five (for structure) and—not surprisingly in terms of narrative—William Maxwell’s masterpiece So Long, See You Tomorrow. Again, the double-I presents many obstacles from the beginning, as with Allison’s comments about the generation of this novel:

“This book had initially started out as a completely epistolary novel. It was all a letter from Glen to his daughter Sara. But eventually I couldn’t make that work in that case because there was information I wanted to get to the reader that I couldn’t in a letter without it being a totally fake letter. It would require Glen to say things to Sara that he already knows that she knows. So the sections in the book that are still letters are remnants of this original structure. But then once I moved out of the letter I had to deal with the question as to whether to write it in present tense, without Glen having more knowledge of what’s coming, and I didn’t want to do that. [Still] Telling it from the end of the story…I was very conscious not making the reader feel that I was withholding information in an unfair way, point of view wise.”

Allison—who’s currently working on a sequel to Long Drive Home—says the leanness of this book comes from the fact that he was working under a deadline. He hopes to expand and develop the role of Liz—Glen’s Wife—who the author fears in this book comes off a bit harsh and hostile. Still, the Liz of Long Drive Home precisely represents the version of his wife that Glen would be ruminating upon at this time in his life. Glen—the narrator—feels irrevocably estranged from his ex-wife and daughter and is still trying to comprehend the events that derailed his family life. Ultimately, Glen is a man hoping to rebuild his image in the eyes of his daughter:

“I wanted to close with something useful. A lesson you could apply to your own life. The problem is, I’m not sure what that might be. That it’s a good idea to tell the truth? That it actually doesn’t matter if you do? That sometimes your mistakes catch up with you and sometimes they don’t? Or that they always do, though not necessarily in the ways you might expect.” [181]

Alex Streiff is the fiction editor of The Journal.