Review: The Road to Boredom (A Review of Shannon Bowring’s Novel: The Road to Dalton)
By Hugh Blanton
If a novel were to open up with a prologue that begins “Imagine this”: you might expect to be in for some surreal story of fantasy, science fiction, or other spectacular astonishment. However, when you find out you are simply being told to imagine driving up a rural highway to the top of a hill and then to look out over said hill down onto some dinky little podunk, you might wonder exactly what the hell it is you are supposed to use your imagination for. Maybe it's a ploy—a set up or a hook for something mind blowing to come later. Nope. You simply find out the next 232 pages are every bit as boring as the first. No imagination required.
The Road to Dalton is Shannon Bowring's debut novel. After the above mentioned prologue our story opens with a New Year's Eve party hosted in a wealthy family's home and attended by nearly everyone in the town. It happens every year and nobody wants to go—but go they do. The party goers are every bit as bored as the reader of the story and it goes on for thirty pages. Thirty pages of side glances, champagne flutes clinking, and people wishing to leave and go home. A lot of novels get off to slow starts, so when we move on to the next story and find ourselves at a dinner party we expect things to start happening. Nope again. We get strained silences, food stabbing, forks scraping over plates—for twelve pages. (We then have to go through it all again in someone's telephone recounting of the dinner.) Perhaps Bowring's intent was to paint a picture of a sleepy boring town. If the reader can stay awake through it all you really can't say she failed.
Our story actually centers around Bridget Theroux, a woman suffering with postpartum depression. There are numerous ancillary characters (so many in fact a reader would need a spreadsheet to keep track of them all) that are there to support the story but they do it through the above mentioned strained silences, side glances, and an adulterated Woolfian stream of consciousness. It's written in the present tense, something that became a fad in MFA programs some years ago. (Bowring has an MFA from the University of Southern Maine.) It's difficult to say when this present tense mandate from universities originated, but authors started including "Write in the present tense!" in their Ten Rules of Writing essays sometime after the excellent novel The Crimson Petal and the White came out in 2002. Bowring's use of it here did nothing but cause an excessive and annoying amount of digression.
As in every story about rural and small town life, a city slicker comes to live in their midst. Alice O'Neill, a young woman recently married to Roger McGowan (Alice kept her maiden name), a much older man who is originally from Dalton, was an aerobics instructor in another city before moving with her husband back to sleepy little Dalton. The couple is forced to take in Roger's aging mother Nora, a crusty lifelong Northern Mainer. Nora refuses to eat Alice's cooking (she eats her son's cooking as a big middle finger to her city-slicker daughter-in-law) and belittles Alice's ambitions of becoming a writer. Alice learns on nights out with friends that the bars around Dalton don't carry IPA, just Bud—period. On another night out she thinks she'd like to order a Zema (sic) but it turns out a sympathetic manager has ordered a case of IPA just for her and she can now enjoy her elite hoppy brew on girl's night out in sleepy little Dalton.
In the Hardy Boys children's books author "Franklin W. Dixon" sometimes used the word "CRACK!" to evoke shock and surprise in the reader. (What was that crack? the reader is supposed to ask as he frantically reads on.) Such lame writing can be excused for children's books, but Bowring, MFA and all, uses it twice in this book—one time in italicized capital letters to really let us know our gooseflesh should be on the rise as we read breathlessly on to see what that CRACK! was. More poor writing can be found in every other character noticing the scent of the shampoo on every other character. And then there's the scent of wood smoke every dozen of pages or so. Bowring makes relentless use of the amateur technique of evoking emotion in the reader by listing bands and songs as they play on jukeboxes and radios. (Bob Seger comes up most often.)
As is current with publishing trends in fiction these days there is LGBT oppression, misogyny, sexism, and fat shaming aplenty in this book. (At one point a clinic staffer complains that a doctor's use of blue medical folders for boys and pink for girls is sexist.) As two of our characters, Tommy Merchant and his wife Rose, are driving home from a dinner out, Tommy's truck gets a flat. He tells Rose the jack and spare are in the back and lights himself up a cigarette. Rose doesn't want to get out and change the tire; it's dark and there may be bears out there. "Probably not," Tommy says, taking another drag on his Marlboro and turning up the radio (Bob Seger again.) Spoiler alert—Rose successfully changes the tire with no help from her no-good husband.
In bad books like Dalton there are sometimes good moments—a surprise of good writing or some unexpected event that makes the reader sit up. Bowring leaves us an "Easter Egg" in here that Mainers are sure to pick up on. Our character Rose, trapped in a bad marriage as she is, often thinks of leaving her asshole husband and getting the hell out of Maine. As she's changing the flat tire on the side of the road a Subaru is coming down the highway in the opposite direction:
"Just when Rose thinks the Subaru is going to pull over and that she'll catch a glimpse of the man behind the wheel...the vehicle speeds up and hurtles on. Pebbles fly up in the car's wake and smack against her bare calves. She watches as the brake lights grow smaller and smaller, until the dark night swallows them whole as if they were never there in the first place."
Rose gets back in the truck and they continue their drive back to Dalton:
"All the way back to Dalton, she thinks about that car. She's sure the driver won't end his journey in Prescott. He's meant for someplace better than here. Within the next hour, that man will reach Houlton, and then he'll have a choice—keep on going east and cross the border into Canada, or head straight for I-95, where the road leads south. Away from County, away from this state, into the vast unknown that opens up to become the rest of the world."
Bowring doesn't mention his name, but the Subaru driver Rose watches speeding away down the highway is Christopher Thomas Knight, aka The North Pond Hermit. Knight lived in the Maine woods for twenty-seven years with no human contact until a game warden caught him pilfering a campground pantry. Knight had left home in a Subaru intending to leave civilization behind and he drove it into the woods where he abandoned it after it ran out of gas. He hiked for miles and miles until he eventually made a campsite where he remained hidden all those years. No one has yet found Knight's abandoned Subaru.