Slouching Towards Baltimore

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Geoffrey Becker’s second novel races across the country in the company of “spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Geoffrey Becker’s second novel and fourth book, Hot Springs, manages, simultaneously, to be both cynical and spiritual. The narrative’s structure both flirts with and flouts conventions of the classic road-trip novel—all to fine effect.

Five years after giving up her infant daughter for adoption, Bernice Click decides it’s time the girl was back in her life. With her new boyfriend, Landis, at her side, Bernice has the notion—far too rash and scattered to call a scheme—to kidnap the girl from her adoptive parents, Tessa and David Harding. Since taking Emily in, the couple has provided a home that could hardly seem to differ more from Bernice’s turbulent existence. The Hardings raise Emily in an upper-middle-class setting in Colorado Springs. Exposed equally to scripture and parables along with her ABCs, Emily, once reunited with birth mom, quotes Bible verses and rattles off apostles’ names, to Bernice’s horror. “They are brainwashing her,” Bernice complains to Landis. “They bought my child from me because they couldn’t have one of their own, and now they are killing her mind, one day at a time.”

Following the abduction, Bernice races—make that putters—across the country in a knocked-around Nova, hunting for lodging and low-key hideouts from a friend in Tucson, and later, relations in Baltimore. The boyfriend quickly ditches the quasi-fugitives—it’s an agreed-upon move, supposedly to allow Landis to batten down some logistical hatches. However, the longer he stays away from Bernice, the more tempted he becomes to leave her to her own devices, and demise.

Though that demise would appear imminent, Tessa and David’s response to the crime is much less absolute, or unified, than expected. The couple doesn’t exactly have the police on speed dial, in other words, and Emily’s face doesn’t swiftly appear on the backs of milk cartons. The reason for the Harding’s hesitation, once revealed, is richly peculiar—although the source of the twist is predicated on a creakingly implausible coincidence.

Bernice is a wonderfully messy character, someone who can’t keep any of her misgivings, eccentricities, or instability from spilling into public view. There are moments when Bernice and Emily’s interactions seem a bit too blasé and disconnected, given the extraordinary circumstances. At those times, Emily comes across more like a chess pawn than a fully formed character.

But many other characters—notably Bernice’s artist father, and a musician from her past—are intricately shaded, and never seem for a moment to be minor players. As mentioned, Becker also balances Hot Springs’ momentum with keen insights, creating a terrific tension between the characters’ hunt for faith and redemption and their more profane cravings. In fact, during a late-night radio program Landis listens to in his car, a musician cum guru argues that such a line is illusory at best: “We’re not human beings who occasionally have spiritual experiences,” claims the voice on the radio, moments after a barely-conscious Landis has come inches from steering his vehicle into a fiery end. “We’re spiritual beings having a human experience.”

A native of St. Louis, Matthew Pitt’s first story collection, ATTENTION PLEASE NOW, won the Autumn House Prize, and was later a winner of Late Night Library’s Debut-litzer Prize and finalist for the Texas Writers League Book Award. Pitt’s fiction has received numerous honors and awards, and is forthcoming or has appeared in Oxford American, BOMB, Conjunctions, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, BEST NEW AMERICAN VOICES, and elsewhere. More from this author →