When Jono Riley hears that his childhood friend (and secret love) Marie has died, he decides to head back home to East Providence, where he confronts his past and, by doing so, considers where he has come. The novel alternates chapters between stories of his past and his current Providence experience. Currently, Jono is an actor of one-man shows for whom five audience members is a good night, but he is most remembered for his commercial spots and part on a medical drama where he plays an autistic patient, who is mute so the show could pay him less. He makes his living as a bartender.
After providing some ample reminiscing/exposition for the audience, Jono finally arrives in Providence, and we are slowly introduced to his past, particularly childhood friends Cubby, Billy, and Bobby. As Jono explores his former home, we explore his childhood life: his love for Marie, his life with his friends, and their individual lives. Jono tells of how 12-year-old Marie was shot in the shoulder while they were making snow angels, the event which ultimately drives the plot of the novel. When it is revealed that Marie died from a “traveler”, a lodged bullet suddenly moving in the body, sometimes fatally, the novel turns into a murder mystery, to find the man who only killed Marie decades after the shot.
McLarty succeeds on several accounts, the most impressive of which is his wonderful narrative voice. He paints a poignant and powerful picture of East Providence as a town where all old things are dying and the atmosphere is thoroughly working class. McLarty’s writing comes to resemble what may be called “working-class poetry,” a language rich in detail that flows like music, but concerning the hardly poetic subject of New England working life, which even Manhattanite Jono cannot escape. Some of the prose is simply fantastic, perfectly capturing the great difficulty of Jono confronting the town:
“I felt it seemed to be the perfect time to ask myself what I was doing here. Rhode Island. East Providence. The bartender/actor sinking in memories and mysteries. Threatened by aging mondos, seeing shadows of assassins. I would be the first to admit to a few strange notions of the world, nut I remain essentially a child of the working class, seeking at the very least a modicum of order. But where is the order in priests with trunks of guns and ex-cops obsessing about tap water. I needed [my bar] Lambs and my fifth-floor walk-up and especially my wonderful firefighter [girlfriend].”
The amount of time devoted to Jono’s exposition in this novel serves as a wonderful platform of McLarty’s highly-capable, winning prose. It also means that Jono’s characterization is excellent; with language like this, full of nuance and detail, it becomes difficult to not portray the first-person narrator well. McLarty also wins points for his presentation—alternating the past and the present sculpts the humorous, melancholy, pain of returning home. And where Jono feels at home is in many ways the core question of the novel, as his memories battle his sensibilities and current livelihood. The moment when he comes to understand the proper place of his memories in his life is a beautiful moment.
Traveler receives such a mediocre rating because its successes only slightly outweigh its failures. While Jono’s character is well done, development of the rest is spotty. McLarty’s narrative gifts are wasted on Jono’s girlfriend, who is only described as “amazing,” “wonderful,” etc. Only through her dialogue is her personality allowed to show through, and while this isn’t her story, she is interesting enough to merit more space. As a kind of foil for Jono, she could have been an excellent way to develop the theme and Jono’s journey. Marie is only portrayed as a distant beauty and angel, and though Jono calls her the love of his life, she only occasionally appears in the story. Of his childhood friends, the only one who is reasonably fleshed out is Bobby, who is given his own mini-narrative towards the end of the novel. Cubby is mainly the brother of Marie and the son of Big Tony, who unofficially adopts Jono when his father dies. Billy just seems to be there as filler to make more plot elements work, like Jono’s war experience. As a whole, these other characters are mostly boring, and drag down McLarty’s rich narrative world which begins and ends with Jono. And while they are his memories, it would be a cop-out to say that makes it okay for them to be flat.
But by far the greatest problem is the story may best be described as “mushy” and “heavy”. The elements of the novel do not form a succinct whole, and in absence of this, McLarty’s great efforts feel uncoordinated. Jono begins talking about the parade of women he has lived with, a lengthy non sequitur that contributes nothing to the rest of the narrative. The memory chapters lack a continuity of characters and theme, and while some are good in their own right, their contribution is mainly to add weight to the plot, stretching it in too many dimensions and making the focus fuzzy and unclear. The narrative in the present fares only slightly better.
While this is certainly a novel where plot is not of supreme importance compared to character development, this book is in dire need of one. The unfocused plot makes wanting to carry on somewhat difficult: while the prose may be a reason to do so, it cannot stand as a reason on its own. Toward the end of the novel there is a greater amount of clarity and Jono’s resolution shines through. But it is too little too late, and worse, the resolution hardly feels like it comes from the whole of the experience, but rather simply from the murder investigation, as if reading the first half were optional.
McLarty is a highly capable writer with a superb voice but shoddy plot skills. Traveler is an ambitious novel that demands a skill of narrative complexity, and sadly that need is not met. While it undoubtedly will please many thanks to its strengths, its merits as a work of fiction are deeply flawed. This is hardly meant to sound like distant critical nonsense; on the contrary, it made reading it a difficult, drawn-out, even sometimes boring experience.