Stardog by Jack Driscoll

Jack Driscoll
Dorling Kendersley ($22.95)

by Peter Ritter

The American road novel—that well-tread paean to joyous delinquency—has now been rewritten so many times that it's become something like a scruffy cousin to genre fiction: we know what to expect when the boyish rebel slips behind the wheel and guns off into the sunset, hell-bent on suicide or redemption. Neal Cassady and company blazed this trail decades ago, and there's little on the road to surprise us anymore. Jack Driscoll's latest novel, Stardog, may navigate by the entrenched conventions of the genre, yet, like any good potboiler, this charmingly droll trip down America's byways satisfies our expectations in surprising ways. We may know where we're headed, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy getting there.

Driscoll's antihero, Earl P. Godfrey, is certainly a familiar type. He's a world-class lush teetering on the edge of the wagon, freshly divorced, and adding indignity to misery, employed as a school bus driver in the snow-bound wastes of rural Michigan. Life, Earl figures, can only get better. So he abandons his faucet-nosed charges in a blizzard, borrows his ex-wife's car from her garage, and heads off to the nearest casino with cash likewise borrowed from his wife's checking account, determined to stake solvency and sobriety on the luck of the draw. Says Earl, "I intend to follow the flight path to paradise or bust in this half car, half pickup, and drive it hard all day, far away from this place where I've overstayed without any honest plans or desires or possibilities."

Naturally, Earl begins to pick up trouble like a lint brush. Most of it comes in the person of Miranda Mountain, a drugged-out young drifter with whom he strikes up an unlikely partnership. The two scam the casino and go on the lam, seeking refuge in every fleabag motel and greasy diner between the Upper Peninsula and Massachusetts. Throughout, Earl is such a passive participant in the pair's evolving picaresque adventure that it often seems the windmills are tilting at him. The problem, he explains, is "chronic male insensitivity to the obvious danger signs, for which, no doubt, I should be instantly eviscerated, my entrails strung out along the coast as a reminder of what can happen to a fellow intoxicated by the lazy life, the slow, easy, dead drag of the days." Clearly Earl's desperate cross-country jaunt is as much a rearguard action against his miserable fate as it is a quest for new horizons. But fate, he quickly learns, tends to take the wheel when you least expect it.

Driscoll's novel, meanwhile, increasingly confines its meandering to the inside of Earl's head, where the voices of his ex-wife, his psychiatrist, and a detox doctor respectively nag, advise, and berate him. Especially in these internal dialogues, Driscoll writes in a dryly comic style that serves to simultaneously leaven the bathos of his subject's psychic quagmire and raise Stardog a grade above the standard highway odyssey. Earl's journey may indeed be a bumpy one, but in the sure hands of Driscoll, Stardog proves an exhilarating guidebook to redemption. Conventional though it may be, here is a trip worth taking.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000