In this sequel to Eddie’s Bastard, William Kowalski takes Billy Mann, the title character of that book, on a classic quest: a search for the mother who abandoned him at birth. Quest tradition requires that the journey prove more important than the prize and Kowalski doesn’t stray from this proven formula.
Since his father died in Vietnam, Billy has scant information about his brief affair with a mysterious woman named Sky. All he knows is that she left him on his grandfather’s doorstep in a basket bearing the note “Here’s Eddie’s Bastard.” Having found out his mother’s real name (from a kindly old doctor who betrayed doctor-patient privilege on his death bed) and where his father’s personal effects were sent (from the Defense Department), Billy heads from his hometown of Mannville, New York, to Santa Fe, New Mexico – somewhere south of here.
The trip itself proves uneventful, but once in Santa Fe, Billy meets an endless stream of quirky characters: a bar singer whose former career as a highwire artist ended when she fell from the wire and was safely delivered to the ground by her eleven guardian angels; a psychotic Vietnam vet who thinks Billy looks like one of his old ‘Nam buddies; and a nerdy Greek classics scholar who takes Billy on a quest within a quest to a remote desert town.
Somewhere South of Here is a story about courage, about whether or not Billy can overcome the inertia of his upbringing and make a life for himself. Billy wants to be a writer; Billy wants to find his mother; Billy panics when he realizes that his headstone will likely read “some brains, nice enough guy but never quite had what it took to make it …” As he heads out on his quest, his courage is challenged at every turn.
“[He] looked me up and down with that same dubious expression I’d come to expect from men his age … men old enough to have fought in wars long before I was born. … as though they were trying to figure if I’d survive or not, if I had what it took to kill or be killed. I stood up a little straighter and tried to look brave.”
There is no question that William Kowalski can write and no question that he has stories to tell – too many stories, unfortunately, for this one volume. By all accounts, Eddie’s Bastard was a spectacular debut, but in his sequel Kowalski has muddied the waters. Characters come out of nowhere, some of them with no discernable purpose. There are enough subplots to please a daytime drama producer, and although Kowalski has a flair for metaphor (“… the sunlight fell harsh and clean and dripped off the smooth rock faces, puddling here and there and warming my back through my leather jacket.”) the subplots themselves are transparently obvious attempts to shore up the book’s theme.
About fifty pages before the book ended, I was done. The quest, the subplots, and the whole issue of courage having been tied up, Billy and I were ready to move on. Unfortunately, Kowalski had one more story to tell (something about Billy’s Aunt and her newfound feminist-humanitarian lifestyle) and a misplaced urge to show us Billy’s courage in action. Kowalski’s prose can be inspired and there were passages of pure, gut-wrenching emotion, but, in the end, Somewhere South of Here was all over the map.