According to the bio on the back of his first novel Parts Unknown, Kevin Brennan has “rung in the New Year in Red Square, performed as a busker in the London Underground, wandered the California desert and auditioned unsuccessfully for The Mole.” Clearly, this is a guy who has been around.
So it makes sense that he’s created characters who have also been around: a nature photographer who abandoned his wife and child as a young man; a woman driven to madness by the departure of her husband; a second wife abandoned by her own father, yet drawn to an equally troubled man. And there are characters with names like “Bad Ray” and “Big Don.” With such colorful characters, Parts Unknown should be a gripping, engrossing read. But it’s not. Though Brennan is adept at setting up his story and creating interesting people, he never quite pays it off in way that has any emotionally resonance.
The book focuses on Bill Argus, a nature photographer who, as a young man, fled his wife, child, and the family dairy farm in the small California town of Pianto. Years later, he hooks up with Nora, a loving but damaged woman, abandoned by her own father as a child and raised by an emotionally unstable mother. Late in life Bill, tormented by guilt, returns to Pianto with Nora to see his wife Annie, who has slipped into dementia, and his son, Hayes, who thinks his father is a pilot who died heroically. He also runs into his brother Cameron and aunt Carmen, both bitter at Bill for his cruel and sudden departure.
Each chapter of the book is from the point of view of a different character, but Nora is the sole first-person narrator, and the only one who tells the story of Bill’s reunion with his family. This is a mistake. With the focus shifting from character to character, the main thrust of the novel is somehow lost. Perhaps it would have been better to have Nora and Bill as the only narrators, contrasting their parallel stories of abandonment and betrayal.
However, Brennan’s story isn’t entirely forgettable. He’s created a compelling, irony-rich setup, and characters who make odd choices that somehow seem convincing. The relationship between Nora and Bill, which could have seemed a convenient but forced plot device, makes sense. We do understand that these people love each other and that Nora, because of experience with her own father, may understand Bill better than anyone else in his life.
Despite its short-comings, Parts Unknown has much to admire, and with some fine-tuning could have been a compelling read. For now, though, let’s just be grateful that he’s trying.