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Back Roads
     

Back Roads

4.1 162
by Tawni O'Dell
 

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"One day you're that guy who's happy he managed to survive high school and get that almighty piece of paper, and you're thinking you might try to get a job at Redi-Mix concrete where your dad's worked since the beginning of time. And at least you've got a family you can stand even if they are all sisters.

One day you're that guy, and the next day you're

Overview

"One day you're that guy who's happy he managed to survive high school and get that almighty piece of paper, and you're thinking you might try to get a job at Redi-Mix concrete where your dad's worked since the beginning of time. And at least you've got a family you can stand even if they are all sisters.

One day you're that guy, and the next day you're assigned to a social worker and a therapist and given the choice of either being a LEGAL ADULT with three DEPENDENTS or an ORPHAN with NOBODY." --From Back Roads

Harley Altmyer should be in college drinking Rolling Rock and chasing girls. He should be freed from his closed-minded, stricken coal town, with its lack of jobs and no sense of humor. Instead, he's constantly reminded of just how messed up his life is.

With his mother in jail for killing his abusive father, Harley is an orphan with the responsibilities of an adult and the fiery, aggressive libido of a teenager. Just nineteen years old, he's marooned in the Pennsylvania backwoods caring for his three younger sisters, whose feelings about him range from stifling dependence to loathing. And once he develops an obsession with the sexy, melancholic mother of two living down the road, those Victoria's Secret catalogs just won't do the trick anymore. He wants Callie Mercer so badly he fears he will explode. But it's the family secrets, the lies, and the unspoken truths that light the fuse and erupt into a series of staggering surprises, leaving what's left of his family in tatters. Through every ordeal, the unforgettable Harley could never know that his endearing humor, his love for his sisters, and his bumbling heroics would redeem them all.

Funny and heartbreaking, Tawni O'Dell's pitch-perfect characters capture the maddening confusion of adolescence and the prickly nature of family with irony and unerring honesty. Back Roads is a riveting novel by a formidable new talent.

Editorial Reviews

bn.com
Set in western Pennsylvania, Back Roads is the story of newly orphaned Harley Altmyer (his mother is in jail for killing his abusive father) who, at 19, must shoulder the burden of caring for three younger sisters and struggle with his growing obsession for the sexy mother of two living just down the road. Selected by Oprah for her Book Club™ and celebrated by readers and critics alike, Back Roads announced the arrival of a major new talent.
Los Angeles Times
O'Dell's storytelling has natural flair.
Orlando Sentinel
A vivid writing style that makes for enjoyment reading.
San Diego Union
O'Dell offers up a remarkable tale.
New York Newsday
O'Dell has tackled the real stuff of stories, and she's done it with compassion and a unique voice.
Michael Shelden
Her novel is as racy and as outrageously unconventional as her autobiographical note...Back Roads is a very funny book.
Baltimore Sun
Keith Phipps
Life has always been hard for Harley Altmeyer, the protagonist and narrator of Tawni O'Dell'sBack Roads, but never harder than since his mother went to prison for murdering his father, leaving him alone to care for his three sisters. Working two jobs in a rural Pennsylvania community that's reluctant to forget his family's past, Altmeyer struggles to make ends meet, serving as the head of his household while turning over nagging questions about his father's murder and postponing his inevitable breakdown as long as possible. Sacrificing his own needs at every turn, Altmeyer eventually finds his desires overtaking him as a friendship with a local housewife turns into something more intimate. O'Dell's subject matter may be a little overly familiar, as are the twists and turns of her melodramatic plot, but there's a deftness to the way she handles things--she shifts perceptions of characters and events as the story progresses--that keeps her novel interesting, making it seem far fresher than it could have. Much of this can be credited to the way O'Dell draws the central character: A thoroughly developed backwoods Holden Caulfield who may be on the verge of becoming a rural Travis Bickle, but whose inherent goodness remains close to the surface at all times, Altmeyer and his infinitely sad voice make Back Roads a memorable debut.
The Onions A.V. Club
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Nineteen-year-old Harley is left to rear his three younger sisters after their mother is imprisoned for murdering their abusive father in this searing, hardscrabble Party of Five set in Pennsylvania mining country. Doubly resentful because his best friend is off at college, Harley spends his days slogging as a Shop Rite bagger and appliance-shop delivery person, coming home to cold cereal dinners prepared by six-year-old Jody. Harley is bitter about having to take over for his mother--"she still had us kids but we didn't have her"--and he can't shake the feeling that she prefers prison to their home life; a mystery lingers around his father's death. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Amber is sleeping her way through the town's teenage boys and flaunting her body in front of Harley; middle sister Misty, once her father's favorite and his hunting companion, practices shooting. Desperate for relief, Harley finds solace in rough but exhilarating encounters with married Callie Mercer, little Jody's best friend's mother, losing his virginity to her on a muddy creek bank and reveling in her sophisticated, sensitive words. But memories are stirring in his subconscious, and erotic dreams of the Virgin Mary metamorphose into nightmarish sexual visions. In his sessions with a court-appointed therapist, Harley edges closer to understanding his family's twisted dynamic, but it is only when the horrors of the present begin to catch up with those of the past that a series of shattering truths are revealed. By then it is too late for Harley to save everyone he loves, but in sacrificing himself, however hopelessly, he introduces a note of grace. O'Dell's scorching tale touches on all the tropes of dysfunctional families, but her characters fight free of stereotypes, taking on an angry, authentic glow. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
This first-time novel (an Oprah Book Club selection in March of 2000) will make the reader laugh and cry, angry and sad. This said, it should be noted that when Oprah introduced Back Roads, she observed that it is, among other things, "raw." Both the theme and the language should be considered when recommending this to a teen. Twenty-year-old Harley Altmyer has three younger sisters and is now the head of the household, because his mother shot his abusive father and is now serving a life sentence. He works two dead-end jobs and has his hands full with 16-year-old Amber, who is having sex with every guy she meets, 12-year-old Misty, who is moody and silent and wears her dead cat's collar around her wrist as a bracelet, and loveable six-year-old Jody, who is constantly writing lists and possesses secrets that she is not even aware of. Then one day Harley meets Callie, a 33-year-old married mother of two who likes short shorts and halter tops. For Harley it's love at first sight and for Callie, Harley is a sexual diversion she can't pass up. Through melodramatic twists and turns the events lead up to the murder of Harley's father and, as we can guess at the beginning, another tragedy comes to light. Through every ordeal readers care about Harley and will come to understand why this angry young man is probably the most innocent one of them all. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Penguin Putnam/Signet, 405p, 18cm, $7.99. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Jamie Lyn Weaver; YA Libn., Geneva P.L., Geneva, IL, March 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 2)
Library Journal
In a small Pennsylvania town depressed by coal mine closings, a young man of 19 finds himself thrust into the role of parent. Harley has become the guardian of his three younger sisters as the result of their mother going to jail for the shooting death of their father. Each sibling finds his or her own way of coping with this family tragedy. During his regular visits with a psychotherapist Harley finds some comfort while at the same time feeling disdain for this woman. He is able to satisfy his youthful urges by beginning a series of sexual encounters with an older woman whose daughter is a playmate of his youngest sister. The characterizations are vivid, and each family member generates sympathy. Reader Dylan Baker does a satisfactory job of interpreting Harley's sense of frustration and cynicism. An absorbing novel worth purchasing for fiction collections.--Catherine Swenson, Norwich Univ. Lib., Northfield, VT Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Rochelle O'Gorman
O'Dell's writing is powerful, passionate and sometimes overcooked. She has created a compelling character in Harley Altmyer, a wounded teen-ager in charge of a brood of sisters. Their mother is serving a life sentence for murdering their father, leaving the stoical, angry young man with more responsibility than he can handle. Though her writing teeters close to melodrama in spots, O'Dell conjures up a vivid world in which domestic violence and sexual craving predominate. Audiophiles know they are in for a treat when they see Baker's name associated with a project. A hint of country in the actor's voice adds texture to his performance. He changes his intonation for the young girls but does so without sounding mincing or phony. He roughens and deepens his voice for a minor character and clearly changes his timing to suit the halting words of a small child.
From the Publisher
"An intense story of family, frailty and dysfunction, set in the coal-mining towns of western Pennsylvania...captivatingly told." —Chicago Tribune

"Tense...involving...deftly captures the voice of a teenage boy who's in trouble." —New York Times Book review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101209271
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/01/2001
Series:
Oprah's Book Club Series
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
78,049
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

BACK ROADS
by Tawni O'Dell

 

INTRODUCTION
Praised as "hilarious, moving, and deeply disturbing," (Mademoiselle) this extraordinary debut novel features one of the most unforgettable voices to emerge in recent years, as we enter the world of Harley Altmyer, a nineteen-year-old in rural Pennsylvania struggling to raise his three younger sisters after his mother goes to jail for his father's murder.

"One day you're that guy who's happy he managed to survive high school and get that almighty piece of paper, and you're thinking you might try to get a job at Redi-Mix concrete where your dad's worked since the beginning of time. And at least you've got a family you can stand even if they are all sisters.
One day you're that guy, and the next day you're assigned to a social worker and a therapist and given the choice of either being a LEGAL ADULT with three DEPENDENTS or an ORPHAN with NOBODY."

—From Back Roads
Harley Altmyer should be in college drinking Rolling Rock and chasing girls. He should be freed from his closed-minded, stricken coal town, with its lack of jobs and no sense of humor. Instead, he's constantly reminded of just how messed up his life is.
With his mother in jail for killing his abusive father, Harley is an orphan with the responsibilities of an adult and the fiery, aggressive libido of a teenager. Just nineteen years old, he's marooned in the Pennsylvania backwoods caring for his three younger sisters, whose feelings about him range from stifling dependence to loathing. And once he develops an obsession with the sexy, melancholic mother of two living down the road, those Victoria's Secret catalogs just won't do the trick anymore. He wants Callie Mercer so badly he fears he will explode. But it's the family secrets, the lies, and the unspoken truths that light the fuse and erupt into a series of staggering surprises, leaving what's left of his family in tatters. Through every ordeal, the unforgettable Harley could never know that his endearing humor, his love for his sisters, and his bumbling heroics would redeem them all.
Funny and heartbreaking, Tawni O'Dell's pitch-perfect characters capture the maddening confusion of adolescence and the prickly nature of family with irony and unerring honesty. Back Roads is a riveting novel by a formidable new talent.

 

ABOUT TAWNI O'DELL

Tawni O'Dell, a western Pennsylvania native, earned a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. In addition to earning wages as a bank teller and a waitress, she put herself through college working as an exotic dancer jumping out of cakes at bachelor parties. A mother of two, she lives with her husband in Illinois. Back Roads is her first novel.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Harley Altmyer is a complicated figure. He is part saint, part sinner; part child, part man. Discuss these contradictions. Which parts of him do you like? Which do you dislike?
     
  2. How might Harley be different in other circumstances? Could he have had a normal life despite his abusive upbringing if he wasn't caring for his three sisters?
     
  3. Harley sometimes has violent physical fantasies, many of them aimed at women. Do you think his fantasies are worrisome? Normal? To be expected, given his circumstances?
     
  4. There are very few male influences in Harley's life. He obviously grew up in a family with fairly traditional gender roles. Yet Harley was not interested in hunting, sports, or other "manly" pursuits. Do you think this was a subconscious rejection of his father's worst masculine qualities? What effect do you think his father's scorn had on Harley's self-esteem?
     
  5. Discuss why Amber is such a tragic figure. Did you feel that way even before the climax of the book? Why does Amber seek safety and comfort in the arms of all the wrong people? Why does it infuriate Harley? Are the reasons more complex than you initially suspected?
     
  6. Why does Harley's mother take responsibility for the shooting? Do you think she did the wrong thing? In what ways was her false confession further abdication of her maternal responsibilities?
     
  7. Discuss the theme of character as it applies to Misty. Do you think she is beyond redemption? Should Harley's mother have assumed her new role as head of the family and sought help for Misty?
     
  8. Harley's father is as complicated a figure as Harley. In many ways, he is painted as a decent, hardworking, loving man. Does his casual violence negate all that? And how culpable is Harley's mother for overlooking the beatings?
     
  9. Sexual tension between Harley and Amber is evident throughout this story. Is a certain portion of this natural when teens reach puberty? Did you find the violent love/hate relationship between Harley and Amber explained by their semi-incestuous past?
     
  10. Do you think it's significant that Harley's first sexual relationship is with a woman who is much older, married and has children? In what ways does Callie mother Harley, and do you find that interesting in relationship to the themes of abandonment and incest that run through the book?

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"An intense story of family, frailty and dysfunction, set in the coal-mining towns of western Pennsylvania...captivatingly told." —Chicago Tribune

"Tense...involving...deftly captures the voice of a teenage boy who's in trouble." —New York Times Book review

Meet the Author

Tawni O'Dell, a western Pennsylvania native, earned a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. In addition to earning wages as a bankteller and a waitress, she put herself through college working as an exotic dancer jumping out of cakes at bachelor parties. A mother of two, she lives with her husband in Illinois. This is her first novel.

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Back Roads 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 162 reviews.
Nicole Poliskey More than 1 year ago
This was a story for only the bravest of readers because it is so heartwrenching. The characters were people that most would not want to know but still rather amazing. Please give it a chance!
SarahJane26 More than 1 year ago
This was amazingly well written and true to life. There are some pretty twisted and dramatic topics in this book, but if you are grossed out or offended by them, you have missed the point. Tawni O'dell isn't some sicko writing about an incestuous relationship between brother and sister, rather two characters who have been damaged and betrayed by those whom they trusted. If you miss the fact that they are not even attracted to each other sexually and that they associate love with physical closeness, then you are bound to miss several other important messages. It is more complex than its "Jerry Springer" twists and turns. The story is about sacrifice, trust, and the basic needs of the human soul, among other things. Take a chance to get to know these characters, dare to delve into the minds of children who have been forced to cope with the harsh realities of betrayal & abandonment, and all of the contradicting and irrationally rational feelings that come along with it all.
LaceHatt More than 1 year ago
phenomenal. one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life. I fell in love with Harley's sarcastic and blunt humor. O' Dell has an amazing talent when it comes to capturing moments and thoughts. Even though it's fiction, She reviles thoughts that are relatable but no one would ever admit. By the end, my jaw had several moments when it dropped, very unexpected twists and turns. I didn't want to end it, knowing there would be no more Harley. by the end, you just grow to have a compassion for the whole family. After reading, the book haunts you. excellent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GOOD BOOK. One of Oprahs original book club story. Had some kind of bizarre moments but kept me going!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this writer. Her prose is so descriptive and thought-provoking that by the time I've finished one of her books, there are several pages turned down at the corners with descriptions or ideas that are so great I want to go back to read them again!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very poignant book about a family torn aparat by abuse, murder, cover ups and a 19 year old left to raise his sisters.
Luceman More than 1 year ago
I appreciate the depth of how true she is able to capture the mind and heart of a struggling young boy who grows up in a broken home that forces and depends on him to become the "default" man of the house. She dares to boldly characterize his feelings and attitudes toward his longing desire of the opposite sex. She helps us male readers identify and relive our own inward excitement and ecstasy that comes by way of a first sexual encounter. A much more explicit and venerable rendition of young love than such classic books as The Catcher In The Rye. Thanks Tawni for telling it like it really is.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Once you start you cannot put this book down. This haunting tale of a boy with troubles beyond his years in the coal mining area of Pennsylvania.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was dull at first, the first 2 chapters were hard to get into but after that I couldnt stop reading,,,it made we wonder what would happen next,,,and the ending is one no one will ever imagine!!! Great Book!!!...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I never expected the ending and it was one twist after another. Top read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this book. I've never read an author that can cut to the nitty-gritty, the deepest, ugliest parts of life so quickly. This book broke my heart over and over...I found myself rooting for the protagonist, Harley, and especially sweet 6 year old Jody. Just wow. I'm searching for another book by Tawni O'Dell right now.
megan105 More than 1 year ago
i loved this book! There was defiantly something about this book that drug you in. I love the way the story line is set up, the characters, the way the author portrayed the story. I've read this book more then once because its that good! 
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A little boring in the beginning chapters, but stick it out because it is so worth it. This is truly a shocking tale, to say the least! Harley takes you so far into his world that you may find it hard to stop thinking about him even when you're no longer reading. At times I found myself laughing out loud at his antics and at other times, I just wanted to give the poor kid a BIG hug. Worth reading . . .
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it! It was thrilling, intresting, and after reading it..it will stay in you're mind for days but don't try to explain to others what you've read. I couldn't put this book down all day, it is a great read that is good for a day you need to escape into a darker twisting story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a tragic story with a few twists and turns that were not so much surprising, but still God awful. I was able to form a clear picture of all of the main characters and I like this true to life style of writing. I will look for more by this author.
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sunshine747 More than 1 year ago
I read half of this book in one night and I plan to finish the other half tonight. She writes what someone may think in their deepest, darkest corners of the mind and makes you love the one thinking it nonetheless. I want a sequel.
sabrina100 More than 1 year ago