Reviewed by Dixon Hearne
David Armand’s new novel, Harlow, is a compelling read on several levels. The story deals with universal themes of alienation, oppression, futility, resilience and hope – and all unfolding in raw and biting detail. Other reviewers have already parsed Harlow’s plot, character, setting, and theme. Far more salient in this new novel, I believe, is the writer’s style, often compared to Faulkner, McCarthy, Welty, O’Connor – even Salinger. But there is also a haunting tone reminiscent of Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms and Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, an inner void embodied in the tragic characters Joel Knox and Smike respectively.
Armand’s Leslie Somers is such a literary figure, a coming-of-age young man who finds himself cast off into the adult world with but his wits and a burning search for some sense of legitimacy. Like Joel and Smike, Leslie is acutely haunted by a deep sense of incompleteness. And like these former books, Harlow also features encounters with an odd array of “freakish” people and events: an armless man at a parish fair who throws darts with his toes; a young woman with a deformed spine; a Christian zealot who robs because Christ compels him to do so.
Two dominant threads run the length of the novel: the lives of eighteen-year-old protagonist Leslie Somers and the title character Harlow Cagwin. Using flashback sequences and interior dialogue, Armand skillfully weaves their separate stories into a striking tapestry of struggle and hope.
The story opens with Leslie Somers being vanquished from his home in Sun, Louisiana—indeed from his childhood. Hence begins a soulful search for his father, a man he knows only from parsimonious bits his mother has shared and from local reports, a man of ill repute by all accounts. His quest takes him on foot along the tired back roads of South Louisiana in the cold of winter. He is quickly rescued by eighteen-year-old Nevaeh, a young woman plagued with scoliosis who offers him a ride and food, and a place to rest. But Leslie soon finds himself pistol-whipped by the girl’s father’s friend, Corlin, a hard, determined man who considers Nevaeh his charge. She, too, has a hidden quest: a quest for a life somewhere other than the backwoods town of her youth.
After the pistol whipping by Corlin, Leslie takes a sleeping bag from Nevaeh and steals away into the woods, where he builds a fire and camps. In hazy recollections, Leslie shares with the reader his earliest childhood memories: screamings and unrest, counterbalanced by his mother playing Claire de Lune and saying she loves him – which he does not believe. In these dreamy wanderings, Leslie relives mostly awful events: how he broke his hand boxing with a friend, which required a cast; how his friends forced his cast into a red ant mound and he had to rip the cast off by hand – the kinds of events that contribute to his psychological scarring.
He is suddenly startled by a man who has stepped into the woods to relieve himself. By extraordinary chance, the man reveals himself to be Leslie’s estranged father, Harlow Cagwin, who is on his way to return a stolen car. Harlow is an unkempt, balding man with orange, rotting teeth living in disarray and nicotine-and-tar-stained quarters. He has seen his son Leslie only once, as a newborn child. Knowing he is too young to be a good father, he disowns the child and disappears from Leslie’s life.
Subsequently, Harlow falls in love with a very young woman – too young for him. In his love-sickened state and a drunken stupor, he steals a car. This event forces Harlow to face himself and the life he has come to lead. In flashback, he recalls how his father, also a car thief and a drunk, would urinate in the commode and shove his head in the bowl until Harlow swallowed some of the urine – punishment for misbehavior. He recalls visiting the local prison as a child where his father is doing time for car theft, and the shame and fear he feels: what if one of his classmates recognizes his father? Ironically, eleven years later Harlow himself will return to this very place as a prisoner for car theft – a place where “men are invisible.”
But there are other, less painful memories, too. There is an especially telling and intimate reminiscence that strikes at the hollow heart of Harlow’s deep yearning. It involves an elderly black man named Curtis, who works a hot press alongside him at a flag factory. Over time, Curtis becomes Harlow’s ideal of a positive father figure. A single parent raising his children on meager wages, sacrificing personal time and luxuries, Curtis embodies the qualities of love and caring and the kind of stability Harlow so deeply needs. He wishes Curtis was his own father, a man he could trust and count on to always be there for him. It provides something good and pure for him to cling to, a reminder that such things exist.
But a string of dead-end jobs follows. After a particular deal gone wrong in the New Orleans ship harbor, Harlow finds himself in a French Quarter bar, where he encounters a young prostitute named Courtney. After a brief turn with her in a back room, he leaves for his “rundown and ramshackle house back in Greensburg,” the only thing his cruel father had left him. In Amite, he is booked for stealing a Trans-Am. He manages bail and returns home to find Courtney mysteriously perched on the front porch waiting for him – with news that she is pregnant. She stays with him, working at a diner in Amite until the baby comes – a baby she names Leslie. Harlow is sent to prison for three to five years for the car theft, and although he writes letters to Courtney – sometimes inquiring about Leslie – he never intends to mail them.
After their initial meeting and brief exchange in the woods, Harlow invites Leslie to go with him. But when they reach the stolen car, cops have arrived and are searching it. The two trail off into the woods and away from them. They eventually return to the road and Harlow thumbs down a ride. The driver is a religious fanatic, who wishes to “save” them by robbing them. He pulls a knife and holds it to Harlow’s cheek and demands their money, because Jesus and the Holy Spirit compel him to do so. He assures them that if they forgive him, they will earn salvation from Christ. This event is oddly reminiscent of the scene with the grandmother and the “Misfit” in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:
The Misfit says that Jesus confused everything by raising the dead. He says that if what Jesus did is true, then everyone must follow him. But if he didn’t actually raise the dead, then all anyone can do is enjoy their time on earth by indulging in “meanness.” The grandmother agrees that perhaps Jesus didn’t raise the dead. The Misfit says he wishes he had been there so he could know for sure. The grandmother calls the Misfit “one of my own children,” and the Misfit shoots her in the chest three times.
Harlow manages to pull a pistol from his back pocket and forces the dubious Christian out of his own car, leaving him stranded. At Harlow’s house, father and son have a heart-to-heart. Harlow tells Leslie he saw him once at “about two weeks old,” but split because “I didn’t want to mess you up,” like he’d been messed up by his own father. Leslie studies his father’s house intensely, as if searching for further hidden truths. He is struck by Harlow’s paintings – juxtaposed to his ugliness depicted by others. Sure that the Christian thief will not report them, they go into town for supplies in the stolen car. On the way back, they stop at a drive-through – where Nevaeh works. She is startled and apologizes again to Leslie for Corlin’s pistol-whipping him at her house. Harlow sees the attraction between the two. Nevaeh agrees to meet with them after her work shift.
In the interim, Harlow takes Leslie hunting – something Leslie had fantasized about all these many years. At 5:00 p.m. they return to the drive-through to meet Nevaeh. Unfortunately, Corlin is parked nearby in his pickup, waiting for her to exit. He steps out with shotgun in hand and tells Nevaeh to get in his truck. Harlow now exits and confronts Corlin – who turns the gun on him. Leslie finally gets out of the stolen car with Harlow’s gun and aims it at Corlin – all four of them staring intently. Corlin shoots Harlow in the stomach and Leslie shoots Corlin in the neck. Harlow lies hemorrhaging in a dream-like state as he is placed in the backseat of the stolen car and whisked to a hospital.
Afterward, Leslie and Nevaeh return to Harlow’s house. Leslie has shot a man – and is still in danger of being an accomplice to the car theft, thus perpetuating the cycle. The two decide to flee with whatever they can use from Harlow’s house. Leslie is drawn once again to the crooked painting on the wall, perhaps a positive memento. When they try to remove it from the wall, they discover a box in the wall behind the painting. Inside, they find $7,500 in twenty-dollar bills. Leslie reasons that Harlow would want him to have the money. Sometimes, a journey’s end presents a new road, a new sense of direction, a new life. And sometimes, it’s the baggage that determines the destination.
David Armand does a stellar job of weaving the characters’ back stories into a coherent and compelling plot line. He manages to hold the reader rapt through long passages void of punctuation, a place to catch one’s breath and yet not wanting to stop the surge, the momentum – like being swept forward on a thrill ride. And like all good reads, it left me wanting more – like the end of that favorite ride at a parish fair.
David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He grew up in the small village of Folsom, where he lived on twenty-two acres of pine-wooded land with lots of dogs and a few horses. He has worked as a telephone operator, a dishwasher, a drywall hanger, a draftsman, and also as a press operator in a flag printing factory. He now teaches creative writing at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. His second novel, Harlow, is also published by Texas Review Press. David now lives with his wife and two children and is at work on his third novel. Visit his website: www.davidarmandauthor.com