Local author Thad Nodine views modern life in wry, compassionate ‘Touch and Go’
There may be none so blind as those who will not see, as the old adage goes. But in Santa Cruz, author Thad Nodine’s bracing debut novel, “Touch And Go” (Unbridled Books), there is also no one more perceptive than the blind narrator/protagonist, Kevin Layne. In a patchwork, largely dysfunctional, post-modern family related by need, not blood, on an ill-conceived cross-country road trip, blind Kevin is the one with the surest grasp on (and empathy for) the desires and compulsions that motivate the others’ actions—motivations they often keep hidden, even from themselves.
It takes a certain amount of audacity—not to mention skill—for a sighted author to write an entire novel from a blind character’s, er, viewpoint. For one thing, there are no elaborate visual descriptions to fall back on—interiors, city streets, the changing landscape on the road, not even the characters’ faces. None of which daunts Nodine, who makes a vivid sensory feast out of everyday activities as Kevin relates his experience of the physical world. (“Footsteps spat across concrete at odd angles. A stroller nearly clipped me … I blustered across alcoves as the heels of my Western boots echoed the recesses.”) From Kevin’s perspective, Nodine’s descriptions of the other characters are so alive—the emotional pitch of voices, how a shoulder or elbow feels to the touch, a fleeting scent of perfume, or sweat, or chlorine, fidgety hands, intimate confessions—the reader may not even realize he doesn’t know what they actually look like.
Kevin is a 27-year-old ex-crack addict who’s been clean for two years. He lives in Burbank with two other ex-addicts, volatile, paranoid Patrick, and needy Isa, who met in recovery and are now a couple. Kevin is covertly in love with Isa (with her “effervescent, disabling goodwill”); she is also, technically, his caregiver, which places Kevin a rung down in the makeshift family’s pecking order, along with the household’s two foster kids. Black 16-year-old Devon has a sarcastic, badass attitude, while Ray is a warm, thoughtful, 12-year-old Mexican-American.
After losing his part-time gig writing for a community paper, Kevin is dragged along with the rest of the family on a summer road trip to visit Isa’s elderly, difficult, possibly dying father in Florida—with a hand-carved wooden coffin for the old man strapped to the roof of their station wagon. It’s mid-August, 2005, and their sweltering route takes them through Tucson, for a tense visit with Isa’s well-off brother, recently charged with financial skullduggery, an unscheduled stop in El Paso, where they take refuge in a community church, and into Biloxi, Miss., to visit Patrick’s wealthy parents.
Along the way, tempers flare and alliances shift, love is found, rekindled, and/or betrayed, revelations erupt, and long-harbored bitterness bubbles to the surface. They get to Biloxi one day ahead of Hurricane Katrina—which only echoes the potent psychic storm brewing within the family.
An education policy specialist and onetime UCSC writing instructor (and co-editor of fiction for Quarry West), Nodine also worked for 20 years at the Pathway Society treatment center in San Jose. Kevin’s acute sense of both the allure and devastation of addiction is no doubt born out of these experiences, as are the wonderfully realized characters of foster kids Devon and Ray, in all their tough/fragile, wise/pugnacious contradictions.
In a book of richly drawn characters, Ray and Devon are the ones we care most about. Along with Kevin, who, like “the kids” is groping his way toward maturity and independence, one step at a time. Compassionate about the others, funny (“I can see nothing perfectly,” he quips), and wry about his own self-delusions, Kevin is (like Nodine) an engaging and reliable observer of the human psyche.
Thad Nodine will be reading from “Touch And Go,” along with fellow Santa Cruzan Claudia Sternbach (“Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses”), and memoirist Katherine Kindred (“The Accidental Mother”) at the Capitola Book Cafe, Monday, Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m.