Book review of Long Way Back

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Buy your copy from Long Way Backstarstarstarstarno star Author: Brendan Halpin
Publisher: Villard (2006)
Genre: Fiction

“Punk is musical freedom. It's saying, doing, and playing what you want. In Webster's terms, 'nirvana' means freedom from pain, suffering, and the external world, and that's pretty close to my definition of punk rock.” – Kurt Cobain

Unfortunately, despite the above quote, punk rock didn’t save Kurt Cobain’s life. In “Long Way Back,” the new novel by Brendan Halpin (“Donorboy”), it does, however, work wonders to bring Francis Kelly back from the abyss. Whether or not it proves to be a permanent savior…well, that would be telling.

Francis and his sister, Clare (who serves as the narrator of the novel), grew up with hippie parents, the kind who go on South American missions to farm guinea pigs or harvest coffee, yet the siblings somehow turn out surprisingly well-adjusted. Francis has always had a spiritual side, but, although he ends up working with a church youth group, the depths of his beliefs are something he generally keeps under wraps, only discussing it with his sister on the rarest of occasions. Clare becomes an emergency room nurse, gets married, and has a baby. Francis, meanwhile, is struggling to find romance…and, when he does, it’s an understatement to say that things don’t follow the plot of the storybook life his sister has been leading. The emotional experiences Francis goes through in “Long Way Back” are agonizing, and they’re made even more sympathetic when seen through Clare’s eyes, as she does her best to keep her own life intact while trying to help her brother find the happiness she herself has achieved.

While music isn’t a constant throughout the entire book – it isn’t until the second half of the book that it’s a really significant plot thread – it’s obvious that Halpin’s on very steady ground when writing of Francis’s exploration of the current music scene, as when he forces Clare to listen to the White Stripes.

“Play the one about first grade, and then put something else on, will you?” I yell from the kitchen.
“Come on! This is such a great record!”
“It’s fine, but I’m just a little tired of it. What else do you have?”
“How about the Darkness? They sound like Whitesnake!”
“Is that a good thing? You hate Whitesnake!”
“Yeah, but I think enough time has passed that they’re kind of cool in a retro-terrible way.”

It’s not just current groups who get name-checked; the Ramones are an early bond shared by the siblings, and Francis and his father find a surprising consensus when it comes to how great the Who’s Tommy is. (The Who are a staple of the book’s second half, partially because Francis joins a band called Happy Jack.) There are also well-written, emotional passages describing performances of the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and the Buzzcocks’ “What Do I Get?”

Halpin manages to successfully capture the voice of a female narrator by not attempting to get hip-deep in trying to explore all aspects of being a woman. Her experiences in getting married, being pregnant, and raising a child are all done in a realistic, casual manner; there are precious few occasions where he opts to discuss something simply for the sake of reminding the reader that, hey, this is a woman talking.

At just over 200 pages, “Long Way Back” is an extremely fast read, aided by Halpin’s method of skipping ahead by weeks, months, or years, then quickly summarizing what’s happened in the interim. It’s equal turns hilarious, tearjerking, and generally gripping, possibly because it’s just so damned real; as such, it’s no stretch to predict that music fans with a sensitive side will find this atop their best-of list at the end of the year.

~Will Harris