By Art Taylor– Is it OK to say a book by a male author is “charming”? Regardless of possible gender-bias, this book is. Del and Louise are a couple brought together by crime. They met when Del was robbing the 7-11 in Eagle Nest, New Mexico, where Louise worked. They stay together during a succession of American-style self-reinventions aimed at getting a “fresh start,” reinventions that invariably wind up in one shady enterprise or another, and they ultimately . . . well, read the book and find out.
Taylor is an award-winning short story writer, and the individual chapters of this picaresque could stand alone. In fact, the first two chapters have done so, in past issues of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, where I first read and admired his work. His stories have won numerous Derringer, Agatha, and Macavity awards and are frequently anthologized.
What’s especially fun about On the Road is how well Taylor develops the two principal characters. Del wants to do right, to get straight, but it just isn’t happening, and Louise isn’t above a little larceny herself, if it promotes the couple’s welfare. Del’s intelligence is complemented by Louise’s cleverness in a pinch, and Del’s planning skills by Louise’s gut instincts. Together, they are a “doing the best they can” pair and their story is filled with humor and insight into human failings. The people they meet along the way have plenty of those, as they do themselves.
Their adventures are recounted by Louise in a straightforward and wry narrative voice that includes plenty of insight into her own shortcomings. Although the text is relatively unembellished, Taylor allows himself some spot-on literary flourishes (for instance, when he describes an early morning near Taos as “the sun creeping up, the boil not yet on the day”) and comic bits: “If that first winery we went to was upper crust, the bar in Napa was sure the bottom of the pie.”
Their travels take them from New Mexico to Victorville and Napa Valley, California, then to a comically disastrous scene in a Las Vegas wedding chapel (do I even need to say “cheesy”?). A stint in the North Dakota oil fields proves financially rewarding and emotionally bankrupting. There, Louise learns anew that “The reasons you do things don’t always make up for the doing of them.” Finally they reach North Carolina, Louise’s home state, and her acerbic mother Cora. Her relentless belittling and undermining of Del are priceless, as if all the wicked thrusts and jabs of a lifetime must be desperately delivered in one short visit.
Taylor has created an enjoyable tale and some nerve-wracking adventures without the need for a gruesome body count or far-fetched end-of-the-word-as-we-know-it scenarios. Because the story is so grounded in imperfect humanity and told so convincingly, we share Del and Louise’s bumpy ride, rooting for them every mile of the way. While their lives will never be trouble-free, the reader senses they will always be good.
A longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.