Review: The Last Road Home, by Danny Johnson
Kensington, 2016. 324 pp. $15
As a young North Carolina boy in the late 1950s, Raeford Hurley loses his parents in a car accident. He goes to live with his grandparents, who farm tobacco in Chatham County, not far from Durham. They’re kind to him, and he loves them, but he misses his mother and their brief joyful moments:
We laughed, jumping around and making fools of ourselves, until we had to sit down on the floor. Her happiness would flow out like a circling wind and wrap me up, pulling me into her joy, letting me know it was okay to be alive and be silly. Daddy was the only one I ever saw who could make Momma’s eyes water. I think he would sometimes be mean to her on purpose just to show us life was serious and hard, and not to be wasted being childish. My momma was too gentle to die.
Right away, you understand what Raeford, known as Junebug, is looking for. And where he tries to find it, or, rather, with whom, makes for a gripping premise. Junebug’s only friends are two African-American twins, Lightning and Fancy Stroud, whose sharecropper parents work for white families. By the time they’re fifteen, in the early 1960s, Fancy and Junebug realize their attraction for one another. Despite the threat of exposure and violence in a community where the Ku Klux Klan holds sway, they have a passionate, all-consuming affair.
What’s more, Fancy’s the sexual aggressor, making so many passes at Junebug that there’s no doubt she’s willed them to be together. Hasn’t she been raised to fear such impulses, especially where white boys are concerned? She says she has, yet her romance with Junebug feels inevitable. You know they’ll sleep together; you just don’t know exactly when.
Johnson writes as if Fancy and Junebug were like any two teenagers, who, given time and mutual attraction, will do what comes naturally. There’s naive charm in this, to be sure, but it’s also hard to believe. Surely, they’ve been taught that their relationship is anything but natural, so you’d expect them to struggle against that constraint and get to where they can embrace one another and damn the bigoted world. Instead, the process unfolds externally, based on facts rather than psychological depth–they’ve known each other since they were kids, they find warmth and laughter in each other, and their hormones are overflowing.
Consequently, The Last Road Home feels too self-conscious by half, and the failure to evoke time or place suggests a rootlessness, much as with the orphaned Junebug himself. Johnson excels at interiors; you see the tobacco farm, the chores, the general store in town, and so forth. But you don’t see the town itself, the red dirt by the roadside, or the Confederate flags on the license plates; you don’t smell the tobacco curing when you drive the highway; and the 1960s never emerge, at least not to suggest that the characters live and breathe in their milieu. Even civil-rights protests rate barely a mention, and then only so that a character can predict that the racial landscape will surely change one day.
Rather, Fancy and Junebug exist in a private vacuum. They have no other friends to provide a context or influence their outlook, and Johnson has kept their families small–and, except for Junebug’s grandmother–mostly out of sight. This may seem convenient, because there’s nobody around to upset the grand design, but that’s precisely the difficulty. Rather than explore the interracial love to which other people object, Johnson stuffs the plot with extraneous obstacles, as if blind hatred and the risk of lynching weren’t enough trouble. Without giving anything more away, I’ll paraphrase the jacket flap (too revealing, as is typical). Junebug gets involved in a business deal that goes wrong, leaving him “with a dark secret” he can’t tell anyone. Later, he goes to war, and though the flap doesn’t say where, you know it must be Vietnam.
That’s a lot of heavy lifting just to separate star-crossed lovers. Johnson could have accomplished the same thing had he not restrained the town bigots, who take their time to react and pull their punches when they do. As a result, though The Last Road Home sometimes hits its stride (the Vietnam combat sequences are especially vivid), the novel seems like an explanation rather than a story, a collection rather than a synthesis.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.