- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

A great fiction writer knows when to incorporate, and when to avoid, stereotypes. It’s important to recognize whatever demographic truth they have — otherwise, plots appear naive and unrealistic — but at the same time, overuse makes characters two-dimensional in a hurry.

The talent gods blessed novelist Albyn Leah Hall with remarkable gifts in this respect, though occasionally she makes the latter mistake. By and large, when it comes to culture, race and religion, “The Rhythm of the Road” demonstrates tact and empathy alongside gritty, hard realism.

The tale begins in England; Bobby and Jo Pickering, a father-and-preteen-daughter team, drive a “lorry” or semi truck. They pick up hitchhiker Cosima, a country-and-western singer from Texas whose band operates out of London. Cosima gives a CD as thanks for the ride, and the Pickerings fall in love with it. Cosima Stewart and her Goodtime Guys play an “alternative” kind of country, with political leanings borrowed not a little from the Dixie Chicks.

Over the next four years, Bobby and Jo run into Cosima several times, helping the singer through a car accident. Cosima takes a liking to the insecure Jo and dedicates a performance to the child at a gig. Jo starts meeting up with the band, experiencing sex and cocaine for the first time. (Country singer David Allan Coe once sang that “cowboys do more dope than rock ‘n’ rollers,” and evidently Ms. Hall agrees.)

When Bobby goes missing, Jo has no family to turn to. The band sympathizes but refuses to take on full-time parenting responsibilities. Jo panics, and her behavior spirals rapidly toward stalking. She flies to California, where they’re performing.

As Ms. Hall lays this foundation, she intersperses the story of how Bobby (who’s Irish and was then a musician) and Rosalie (who’s Jewish) came to conceive Jo in the first place. It turns out the two fall into the category often referred to as “white trash” — after meeting, they spend several months using meth and having unprotected sex.

Rosalie doesn’t stop her substance abuse after becoming pregnant, and a coke binge sends her into premature labor. After giving birth, she decides she’s not fit to raise Jo. Her parents buy Bobby a new truck and take Rosalie back to the States.

Ms. Hall is a psychotherapist, so one can assume her characters’ pathologies are true to life. However, her prose tends to describe behavior, only lightly touching on the emotions and thought processes involved. Readers won’t leave thinking they’ve gained understanding of addiction or obsession, except perhaps by learning that deeply disturbing events can enable both.

More fascinating are the insights Ms. Hall provides regarding culture, race and religion.

Americans often see the United Kingdom as a vaguely aristocratic, proper, high-minded place, so they might find the trashy subculture in “The Rhythm of the Road” a bit off. It’s not, though; in fact, as Thomas Sowell demonstrated in “Black Rednecks and White Liberals,” the American white-trash subculture originated across the pond, right down to the terms “cracker” and “redneck.”

A look at the book’s whites provides a fascinating look into transatlantic differences. In Ms. Hall’s portrayal neither country can claim much superiority, though one American speed-freak homophobe seems unusually threatening (what with his gun, which he misuses — but defensive gun use does save Jo from a beating at one point).

A discussion between Cosima and another band member sums it up nicely. She says:

“I was raised in a hotbed of conservatism with a capital C. I’m talking Christian Right, gun-toting morons, a place so trigger-happy you virtually get the death penalty for jaywalking. I’m talking total xenophobia.”

The other member responds, “The British are as xenophobic as the Americans.”

To which Cosima replies, “Maybe, but you’re a lot more apologetic about it. Jingoism with irony.”

Regarding race, Ms. Hall proves willing to describe the world as a frustrated teenager sees it. On a bus ride in California, Jo finds herself in a black ghetto, taking in the havoc some mix of crime, racism, illegitimacy and poverty has wreaked on our nation’s inner cities.

In this section, though, the racial stereotyping goes too far. Where readers meet good as well as bad poor whites, the bus ride comes off a carnival of negative preconceptions. The vehicle smells “of sweat and hairspray” as Jo passes “Popeye’s Fried Chicken, NIX Check Cashing, Lou’s Fish Outlet (‘You buy, we fry’).” No one speaks proper English.

A young black couple rides by in a Cadillac, blaring rap music, the man with “chains around his neck and … a red tracksuit,” the woman with “big hair and big [breasts] and a sexy, [angry] face.” The woman sitting next to Jo eats from a Burger King bag and brings up racial grievances at the slightest provocation.

No one quietly coming home from a hard day’s work, no children participating in extracurricular activities. No churches. No one so much as innocently enjoying himself. Many of the phenomena Ms. Hall points to indeed plague the inner city, but by this admittedly brief passage the black community has no redeeming qualities.

Then, near the Mexican border, Jo eagerly fools around with a man she meets, only to discover he’s married — a not-too-subtle stab at the myth of Hispanics having abnormally keen senses of family values. She also meets his wife, however, who’s desperate to keep the family together.

If uncomfortable portraits of whites, blacks and Hispanics aren’t enough, Ms. Hall also takes on Catholicism and Judaism. Bobby lets his devout Catholic father stay with him, but the old man disapproves of Bobby’s sex-and-drugs lifestyle and never even meets Jo, apparently out of spite. Judaism comes off better — the religion even helps one character turn her life around — if over-strict and a little pushy.

The bottom line is that “The Rhythm of the Road” tackles a variety of social issues without flinching. Sometimes Ms. Hall unnecessarily promulgates stereotypes, but on the whole it’s a bold, deep and readable coming-of-age tale.

Robert VerBruggen ([email protected] com) is Assistant Book Editor.

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