Spoilers ahead, if you have not read this book!
Thanks to a lovely gift, I read Dan Crawley’s 2019 book Straight Down the Road last night. Crawley has written for a number of print and online journals, including Atticus Review, North American Review, and more, according to his bio. The book was published by Ad Hoc Fiction, an independent press based out of the United Kingdom.
From my understanding, the stories in this collection — 17 chapters in all — are vignettes, most of which existed as standalone stories appearing in prior publications. However, for, Straight Down the Road, Crawley put them together to tell one coherent story about a family “vacation” where the father, mother, four daughters and one son are traversing the United States circa the 1970s.
The two aspects of the book that work so well is, first and foremost, this feels like an authentic family. The rambunctious sisters, a little conniving, a little mischievous, a little, “We are the boss of our brother,” vibe. (It’s also interesting that the girls are the only ones with names unless I missed it; I think that’s a great style choice!) And the little brother, googly-eyed for his dad, his mom, and his sisters, and who seems to get his way on things (he gets to eat the whole sundae in the diner, after all, while the sisters have to share). To that end about this wonderful family dynamic, I think where the book really hooked its creative talons into me is with the chapter, “Powers,” where Mindy was tasked with watching over the boy as he admired dolls in a store. At one point, she simply wishes he would disappear. And then he does! And she thinks she has magical powers!
“He didn’t have to be afraid of her. But she wanted him to know that her powers were just getting started,” Mindy said, at the end of the chapter.
That whole vignette cracked me up because it’s so authentic and true to family form!
The second aspect of the book that works so well is the perspective from the boy’s point-of-view. He merely thinks his family is on an adventure, a “vacation.” But there are signs peppered throughout that there is more afoot here than meets the eye. The tension just bubbles and bubbles, to where the chapter, “Unmoored,” had me unmoored and unglued, waiting for the father to runaway from his children and wife, leaving them stranded in the middle of a diner and a monsoon.
Fortunately, he did not! Instead, the father, who earlier in the book quit his job, is really trying to make things work, no pun intended, by getting rid of their first vehicle and getting a Plymouth Duster. He’s gritting his teeth and girding himself through all of this, “Kids, there’s nothing to see here, I got this,” kinda vibe, all the while, the mom is coming more and more frazzled, to where she has a freak-out moment on a guy riding a bike in one chapter, and she reminisces fondly about her days where the world seemed to be her oyster. She comes across feeling downright stuck. In hell. In fact, at the end of the, “Unmoored,” chapter, she explicitly stated, “How much more can I take?”
From, “Powers,” on through the end, I felt like each chapter got better and better, not just from a storytelling perspective, but the writing as well. The writing was stronger and pulling me in. And the ending is just, where’s a chef’s kiss emoji when you need one? Because the dad always tells the kids this story about how, when he was a kid, he drove a truck 100 miles to help a drunk worker of his dad’s. The kids hear that with the same reverence they’ve heard and experienced everything throughout this trip: Dad is cool. This is all cool. I want to do that.
And that’s how the book ends: With the sisters — who, again, are true to their form of thinking they can take charge — getting behind the wheel of the Plymouth Duster while the parents are doing parent things, and driving off, almost as if abducted by free spirit aliens. It’s such a perfect encapsulation of the two aforementioned threads of the story that work so well: the children not recognizing the danger and tension, and the parents themselves barely hanging on by a thread, putting the children in a situation where that was even possible.
I’m appreciative of Crawley for sucking me into a narrative that I think moves in a way that mirrors that old Plymouth Duster the dad got suckered into buying: at both turns, it’s spacious for a family of seven, i.e., the book here is spacious to hold a lot of signs of both fun and frazzle; and also, moving slow up each hill, i.e., the book moves slow enough to capture all the rich details that give it the authenticity I crave.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give my appreciation to Janice Leagra, who did the artwork on the book, as it’s downright gorgeous. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” they say, but, well, if one were to judge this book by its cover, they’d buy it in a heartbeat.
I highly recommend this book, and if you’re interested in purchasing a copy of your own from Ad Hoc Fiction books, here is the link to Crawley’s book on their website.