Will Alllion’s second novel Long Drive Home examines how one quick decision shapes a young father’s life.
Bad luck is about more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time; it’s often about being the wrong person at that place and time. Someone less volatile and proud than Oedipus would be just fine reaching the crossroads at the moment he does. When Laius demands the right of way, someone else might shrug and let his carriage pass. But of course Oedipus is fated to stand his ground, and this action has tragic consequences.
The idea that one bad choice can upend a life is at the center of Will Allison’s second novel, Long Drive Home. Glen Bauer is a suburban husband and father, an accountant who works from home in order to be the primary caregiver for his six-year-old daughter, Sara. The novel opens as Glen, driving Sara home from school, is cut off by a speeding convertible. The driver is a teenager talking on his cell phone who seems not to notice that he nearly caused an accident. A few blocks later, the convertible comes careering towards Glen again, and this time Glen swerves briefly into its path. He wants to scare the other driver and succeeds too well: the teenager yanks the wheel and the car flips.
Two years later, the fatal accident remains the sharp line dividing Glen’s life into before and after. “With a different choice here or there—and I’m talking the small ones you wouldn’t otherwise give a second thought to—I could have gotten us safely home from school like I did every other day,” Glen reflects. That almost-reality and the actual one are separated by a membrane that is at once incredibly thin and absolutely impermeable, and Allison uses this paradox to powerful effect. Glen imagines what the rest of that lost evening might have looked like without the accident: there would have been homework, dinner, talk about Sara’s Halloween costume, and he would never have known that “we’d come this close to our lives veering permanently off course.” Instead, in the two years since the crash, Glen and his wife have divorced, and he’s moved out to a crappy apartment above the railroad tracks. His narration is suffused with longing for his past self—not just his immersion in domestic details of homework and Halloween costumes but also his former innocence.
Though Glen’s material situation deteriorates after the accident, his moral downward spiral is Allison’s true focus. Glen struggles to map the consequences of his impulsive action and his less-impulsive cover-up, the novel circling two very different questions: Will Glen get away with having caused the accident? And if he does, at what internal cost? Each lie Glen tells requires more lies to bolster it. He also needs to prevent Sara, the accident’s only other witness, from revealing what she knows. In one especially tense scene, Sara lets an essential detail slip in front of the wrong person and, to cover, Glen lies to and about her. He believes that in order to protect Sara in the long run he must deny some of her present needs, which makes for a compellingly complex dynamic.
What You Have Left—Allison’s first book, published in 2007—moved between points of view and across almost thirty years. Long Drive Home doesn’t have the moments of stark emotional beauty that the first book did, but it does have powerful momentum; Allison does a great job of slowly increasing the story’s stakes and its peril. At times, though, the ways in which he achieves this progression can feel mechanical. The detective assigned to the accident is obsessed with proving Glen’s guilt in a way that seems to reflect the novel’s need for tension rather than the circumstances of the case itself. More problematically, Glen’s wife Liz never comes alive on the page. When she pushes Glen out of her life, it doesn’t ring true just because her suffering hasn’t been fully shown. Glen insists that he loves Liz and “can’t imagine living without her,” a declaration that feels even more generic in light of how little we see that might make her lovable. Even their fights can feel affectless, the two of them saying things to each other like, “Stop, it, Glen;” “No, Liz. You stop.”
Still, this is a book willing to engage the big issues. Once it’s clear what the legal consequences of the accident will be, Glen is still left with less-answerable questions: How can he understand one devastating, impulsive action in the larger context of his life? Are the choices he made in attempting to protect his family the very ones that destroyed it? Why was he unable to shrug and let the other vehicle pass? That missed chance haunts this good, flawed character and this good, flawed book.