This debut novel by 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award winner James King highlights poignant issues facing today’s “sandwich” generation. In our struggles to succeed and provide, how do we remain sensitive to the emotional needs of our teenagers? How do we assist our parents’ generation in aging with dignity?
Bill Warrington’s adult children have grown apart from him. The eldest, Mike, blames his father for his mother’s death; Nick harbors resentment at being the less-favored son; Marcy, the youngest and the only girl, is at the end of her rope as sole caregiver for the father whose sharp tongue and fighting spirit she shares.
The novel opens with Bill receiving a dreaded diagnosis from his doctor, one that threatens the soundness of his mind as he enters the last stages of life. He must struggle against time and the legacy of his failures as a parent to bring his family back together before it is too late.
Bill finds the emotional walls between himself and his children insurmountable, but discovers an accomplice in Marcy’s fifteen-year-old daughter, April. Feeling stifled by her mother and desperate to prove herself, April agrees to run away with her grandfather, in exchange for driving lessons that will carry them from Ohio to California. Bill realizes that even if his children will never willingly reunite with him for his own sake, he can force a reunion through their concern for April. He and April make a pact. If Mike, Nick, and Marcy can’t work hard enough together to find them, then Bill and April will take it all the way: they’ll make a new life on their own terms.
As he plans their route, Bill leaves clues for his children, relying on their memories of family vacations from happier days. But Bill soon begins to confuse memory with reality as his mental health deteriorates with unexpected rapidity. April suddenly has more than enough opportunity to prove herself as she literally and figuratively takes the wheel. She wonders how far it is to California, and whether it will be any easier to return home.
This novel should have broad appeal: middle-aged readers negotiating the needs of teenaged children and aging parents; younger ones who recall April’s adolescent frustrations; or older ones who viscerally understand Bill’s need for closure and reconciliation. King has covered all those bases here and more. His writing is compelling and clear, and he shifts among his characters’ multi-generational voices with grace.
Bill and April’s bond as exiles from “productive” American society leads them into a journey that is exhilarating and harrowing both literally and metaphorically. There are memorable and unique moments that span a ride on a poorly secured roller-coaster, an uneasy confrontation at a deserted highway gas station, and a showdown on the summertime sands of Lake Michigan. Meanwhile the “responsible” adults left behind develop new understanding in small, everyday moments. Marcy finds triumph in refusing to do the grocery shopping for her brother, letting go of her family’s outdated dependency and her own need for control. Mike plays along when his father mistakes him for a good friend, and finds peace from his bitterness.
It’s hard to pinpoint what more King could have given us in this novel, but it’s equally hard to keep from wishing it was longer.
BILL WARRINGTON’S LAST CHANCE (Viking, ISBN 978-0-670-02161-1, 304 pages, $24.95)