In literature, few characters are irredeemable. Even the usual suspect, sordid Raskolnikov, quivered and doubted after he drove the axe into the pawnbroker’s skull. But in Kevin Lynn Helmick’s new novella Driving Alone (2012, Blank Slate Press, 91 pages), Billy Kehoe gets real close to the irredeemable mark. Real close.
Billy’s on the run, and he’s steadily piling up things to run from when he meets Feather, an ethereal, seemingly silly gal hitchhiking to destination unknown. Though Billy’s a hardened man, he takes a shine to Feather. Except the way Billy takes a shine to someone is just as hardened as his life. What makes Helmick’s little tale stand out is the way Billy and Feather approach and back away from each other while stuck in the front seat of a dirty white ‘65 Cadillac. It’s bipolar. Every time they get a hint too close, the sparks fly, lighting a fire that ultimately warms or scorches Billy. Often, he spirals into hazes of a tortured youth that should justify his action, yet can’t quite do it. Instead of born good and turned bad, you get the feeling Billy was born bad and suffers the occasional flash of humanity. Hitchhiker Feather handles Billy with a sort of backwoods wit, and strikes the reader as eternally patient, perhaps to her own detriment. A person that patient’s gotta have something going for them, you think…
No reader is going to come away from Driving Alone liking Billy Kehoe as a person. But as characters, he and Feather are complex, secretive. They turn a straightforward narrative—boy on the run, meets girl, has adventures—into a dark tangled mess. As Helmick’s even-paced sentences roll into his even-paced story, Billy’s transgressions, past and present, multiply and increase in amorality. The writing doesn’t shirk in these moments, consistently visceral and gritty, whether it’s two bodies in motion or scenery flying past the window. Skin’s slapped, the buildings crumble, and by Driving Alone’s end, you know the definition of gripping tale. You grip the book as tightly as Feather and Billy gripped the Caddy’s steering wheel.
Driving Alone is available on Amazon.com:
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