From the Publisher
“A nutty, likable romp [that] quickly takes on a deeper resonance that is certain to please readers . . . quite moving.”—Washington Post
“[Jim Lehrer’s] sly, winsome, and crafty stories always celebrate the ordinary, confront some elemental issue of being human . . . and give us characters whose essential decency stays with the reader. . . . Eureka does all of those things. In fact, it may be Lehrer’s best novel yet.”—Booklist, starred review
“Calamity gives way to poignancy in this consistently fun story buoyed by an endearing protagonist readers will cheer for.”—Publishers Weekly
“Crisply executed . . . Irony seldom drips with such humor and grace.”—Texas Monthly
On its surface, Jim Lehrer's 17th novel is a nutty, likable romp, but it quickly takes on a deeper resonance that is certain to please readers as much as the wacky premise does…Normally, with a story such as this, plotted out the way it is here, it would be easy to expect nothing more substantive than a certain level of camp and caricature, but Lehrer gives us much more. His deft attention to details creates such a clear view into Otis's perspective that Eureka is not only believable but often quite moving…Perhaps none of this would be nearly as funny if Lehrer didn't do such a fine job of putting us firmly and believably in the shoes of mixed-up Otis Halstead. To pull that off and make us hold our sidesthat's tougher than pulling an Evel Knievel jump on a vintage Cushman scooter.
The Washington Post
Spurred on by the sight of a toy he never received as a child, a restless, aging Eureka, Kans., insurance executive relives his youth with disastrous (and hilarious) results in the 17th novel by Lehrer, prolific writer and PBS NewsHouranchor. Otis Halstead, 59, married father of one, is in the clutches of a midlife crisis spending spree; he dismisses his nagging wife's pleas that he see a therapist and continues buying items he's always dreamed of owning: a miniature fire truck (now a collector's item that goes for $12,000), a BB gun, a football helmet and an antique red Cushman motor scooter. The suicide of disillusioned co-worker Pete Wetmore (who left behind a telling note) provides the impetus for Otis to mount the scooter and leave town. But a steady string of bad luck finds a hospitalized Otis back in Eureka faking a coma to buy time for some heavy, overdue retrospection and one final decision. Calamity gives way to poignancy in this consistently fun story buoyed by an endearing protagonist readers will cheer for. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In his 17th novel (after The Phony Marine), PBS anchorman Lehrer takes a fun-filled but serious look at the pre-retirement crisis. Approaching his 60th birthday, reliable Otis Holstead reflects on his past life as husband, father, and CEO of an insurance company headquartered in Eureka, KS-and mourns the teenager who sang like Johnny Mathis and lost his high school sweetheart to a senior jock with a Cushman scooter. Determined to make the most of his remaining years, Otis runs away from home on a 1952 Cushman, subliminally bought for that purpose. An accident two days into his journey sends Otis to the hospital, where he has plenty of time to tot up his lifetime of gains and losses and plan a more effective escape, as he listens to the idle talk about him and plays mind games with doctors, nurses, family members, and friends. Lehrer has effectively captured the essence of the pre-retirement months and created a wonderfully human character determined to live a life that makes a difference. Recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/07.]
Thomas L. Kilpatrick
An impulsive purchase at an antiques show is the first step in the liberation of a Kansas insurance executive from the life he was never meant to live. With 19 books and two plays to his credit, Lehrer (The Phony Marine, 2006, etc.) may be remembered ultimately as a writer rather than America's senior, excruciatingly evenhanded television news figure. This short novel is a piece of pleasant fluff about buttoned-down Midwestern fire and casualty CEO Otis Halstead, dragged to the kickoff of a charity antiques show by his handsome, equally buttoned-down wife Sally. There he spots the cast-iron toy fire engine that was too expensive to be under the Christmas tree when he was a kid. Now, perfectly preserved and packaged, it can be his for only $12,350. To Sally's astonishment, Otis whips out the Amex and buys it. Impending madness? In Eureka, Kan., where the other big business besides insurance is a Menninger-type mental clinic, mid-life mental maladies are not just expected but welcome. Shrinks stand at the ready 24/7. And it is to the shrink that Sally packs Otis when the fire truck turns out to be just the first bit of recaptured youth. The 59-year-old chairman next buys a Red Ryder BB rifle, then a professional football helmet and finally a mid-century Cushman scooter. Alas, for Sally, Dr. Russ Tonganoxie, the assigned psychiatrist-a much-married refugee from Pennsylvania, a man who has a collection of four Jeeps in his garage-is not much help. Happily unmedicated, Otis takes to riding the Cushman wearing his football helmet, the Red Ryder BB gun hanging off the saddle, looking for pleasure. Then the suicide of Otis's protege precipitates a complete breakaway, as he heads for the stateline and adventure. Harmless fun for old guys.
Read an Excerpt
A toy fire truck set off the series of events that changed the life of Otis Halstead, CEO of Kansas Central Fire and Casualty. The small cast-iron vehicle was for sale at the Great Prairie Antiques Show at the Marriott Eureka–East on a Saturday afternoon in March. Otis’s wife, Sally, had pretty much forced him to attend the show’s kickoff luncheon because, as one of the leading businessmen and citizens here in Eureka, Kansas, he should be seen supporting such a good cause—the battered women’s mental health shelter run by the Ashland Clinic. Also, their good friend Mary Gidney was the cochair of the whole thing. Sally then insisted that Otis go with her on a quick walk through the show in the hotel’s large exhibition hall. “Why not at least take a look at what is being offered for sale?” she said. More than five hundred antiques dealers from more than thirty states had set up. “That’s it!” Otis shouted. “I found it!” He aimed an index finger at something in the stall of a dealer from Connecticut. He seemed to be pointing toward an expensive Chippendale dining room chest. “That cabinet doesn’t fit with our decor, and it’s probably a fortune anyhow,” Sally said. “What’s the matter with you, Otis? Lower your voice.” “The fire engine, not the cabinet,” he said. “That red one with the white rubber tires and the firemen sitting in the seats in front and standing on both sides of the rear running boards.” The words came rushing out loudly. “I wanted one of those for Christmas when I was five years old. I wanted it so badly it gave me diarrhea.” “All right, now. People are beginning to stare,” said Sally. “You’re no longer five, Otis.” “I still believed in Santa Claus and had written him a note at the North Pole about it. I went to the live Santa at Buck’s in Wichita and every other place I could find one.” He moved a step closer to the truck. Sally grabbed his right arm and held it tight. Here they were, a well-dressed couple of substance—he in a blue blazer and matching outfit, she in a light pink suit ensemble. They stood fast, rigidly facing a ten-inch toy in a cabinet under five feet away. “Everybody knew I wanted that fire engine and only that fire engine. But I didn’t get it. I raced out to see what was under the tree, and that fire engine wasn’t there.” “Time to go on home now, Otis my darling. I really do appreciate your coming with me today—giving up your Saturday afternoon.” She looked into his face. “Are those tears? Please, now. This is so unlike you.” Otis, still staring at the toy, said, “I cried and pouted the rest of Christmas Day and for weeks afterward. Mom said Santa must have run out of those fire engines before he got to our house. Dad said Santa must have decided it was too expensive or too heavy to cart all the way to Kansas from the North Pole. It cost fourteen dollars and weighed a pound and a half at the most.” Sally released her grip on his arm and raised her hands in an act of surrender. “I can’t believe this is happening.” They went over to the cabinet together. Otis picked up the toy. The two miniature firemen on the front seat and the two on the back and four on the sides were looking straight ahead with their painted eyes. All were wearing firemen’s helmets and coats and boots that had been stamped onto them. A young salesman, tweedy and eager, joined Otis and Sally. “Mint condition, all the way,” he said. “No restoration—everything on it is original, even the paint.” So was the price, inked in small numbers on a white tag hanging around the fireman driver’s neck: $12,350. Sally was stunned. “For a toy?” “Antique toys like this—this was made by the Arcade Company, one of the finest cast-iron toy manufacturers in history —are going for astronomical prices these days,” said the young man. He extended his hands about two and a half feet apart and added, “We sold a cast-iron Pickwick Nite Coach sleeper bus—early-thirties vintage—about this size last month for twenty-two thousand, if you can believe it.” Sally said she preferred not to believe it. Otis said, “Do you take American Express?” “Otis!” Sally exclaimed. “Twelve thousand dollars for a toy?” He said, “It’s mine. It just took fifty-four years for Santa to make delivery.” their brand new blue 1996 BMW was considered Sally’s car, but Otis drove it to their home in NorthPark, Eureka’s most exclusive, upscale, and expensive neighborhood. Otis always did the driving when they were together. It was one of the many standard practices in their thirty-seven years of life together that buying expensive antique toys on a whim did not fit. It especially didn’t fit Otis, who, at age fifty-nine, was mostly a medium: medium height, weight, build, and temperament. The only radical thing about him was the top of his head, which was bald. Once in their house, Otis, without taking off his jacket or saying a word, put the fire engine down on the polished dark walnut floor in the den. Soon he was on his hands and knees, scooting it between the legs of chairs, over throw rugs, through twists of electric cords, up against desks, bookcases, and wastebaskets. “Please don’t make the sound of a siren or a motor,” said Sally. Otis heard her but didn’t respond, either with words or with any other sounds. He was busy concentrating on whipping the toy truck around a hard turn at a mahogany magazine stand. “Well, at least you’re showing some interest in something besides Kansas Central Fire and Casualty,” Sally said as she left Otis to play by himself. “I’m looking for a bright side.” Next came the BB gun. it was an official Daisy Red Ryder air rifle. Otis ordered it for $39.95 from a Nostalgia Today catalog because it was exactly like the one he’d wanted with all of his heart and soul when he was ten years old. His mother had said no way in hell or Kansas, because those things were too dangerous and he would put out his own or somebody else’s eye with a BB. His father said BB guns were for rich people anyhow and much too expensive for you and us, Otis. Same as cast-iron fire trucks. But now Otis Halstead didn’t have to pay attention to what his parents said because, among other things, they were both dead. That left mostly Sally to do the talking. “At least it doesn’t cost a fortune, like that fire engine, Otis,” she said. “You’re moving toward a second childhood, Otis,” she said. “Grow back up, Otis,” she said. “I’m delighted you’re enjoying yourself away from the office, but this is getting a bit strange, Otis,” she said. Otis loved his BB gun from the second he took it out of the box and held it in his hands. Three or four guys in his high school had had them, and holding theirs nearly fifty years ago was the last and only time he had done so. Now, finally, on an early Wednesday evening after a hard day as CEO of an insurance company, he had his very own. It was thirty-six inches of wood and metal and shooting perfection that weighed just over two pounds. The dark wood stock was engraved with a drawing of Red Ryder, the famous redheaded cowboy of the comics and movies, tossing a lasso from his horse. The rope was configured in the air to spell red ryder. On top of the black metal barrel were two stationary sights eighteen inches apart. Hanging from the right near the trigger was a foot-long leather lanyard, designed for carrying the gun on a cowboy’s saddle just like Red Ryder did his rifle. There was also a supply of BBs. They were in a separate orange cardboard box that was the size and style of a coffee-cream carton. Printed on top was red ryder jr. treasure chest. On the sides was Red Ryder on his horse, running along with his Indian boy sidekick and friend, Little Beaver. Inside were twenty-three cellophane Quick Silver packs of BBs—150 in a pack—plus several paper targets and some historical information on Red Ryder. There was also an invitation to visit a museum in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where the original comic book drawings of Red Ryder were on display. There were also booklets on general air rifle safety and the care and use of the Daisy air rifle. There were instructions on everything from how to load the BBs—through a hole along the right side of the barrel—to suggestions for games of marksman skill that could be played, including tic-tac-toe. Otis immediately loaded the rifle and invited Sally to join him in the backyard for an inaugural game of BB tic-tac-toe. She declined. So he went by himself to what their architect and builder had described as an outside entertainment area. All it was to Otis was a very large—fifty by forty feet—and very expensive gray slate patio with year-round garden furniture, a built-in gas grill, and a stereo system that played CDs as well as tapes. Beyond the patio was a patch of golf-green lawn for croquet or volleyball and a forty-foot-long swimming pool. The whole area was lit by an elaborate but discreet system of lights hung at various levels from several tall trees— mostly cottonwoods and sycamores—that encircled the entire area. Instead of making a tic-tac-toe board, Otis grabbed one of the printed targets, a ten-inch-square piece of heavy off-white paper with five black half-inch-wide rings going out from a solid bull’s- eye. It was a standard shooters’ target, with each ring carrying a certain number of points—fifty for hitting the bull’s-eye, ten for the outermost ring. Otis fastened one of the paper targets on a tree with a thumbtack, moved back to a position ten yards away, cocked the BB gun with its pump lever, sighted the bull’s-eye, and squeezed off a BB. It missed the target—and the tree. The next shot struck the paper, at least, but not within any of the rings. He kept shooting until it was almost dark, and by the time he finished, he was hitting a bull’s-eye at least every tenth or eleventh shot. It confirmed what he had suspected from his childhood in Sedgwicktown— he was a natural-born BB gun marksman, a natural-born Red Ryder. He was back out there in the morning before breakfast and shot off another twenty BBs. He did the same thing the next morning and the next and the next, reporting his scores to Sally. “Four bull’s-eyes, three fifties, five twenty-fives, and only six that were tens or out of the money. Does it make you proud?” It was on his tenth straight morning of shooting that Sally said, “I talked to Mary Gidney about your problem. She says there’s a man out at Ashland Clinic who specializes in treating what you’re doing. She said she’d ask Bob.” The Ashland Clinic—the world-famous Ashland Clinic, as it was called around Eureka—was one of the most prominent small mental health institutions in the country. Its prominence in Eureka made the open discussion of mental health problems, psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis as routine around town as steaks in Kansas City, Fords in Detroit, and movies in Hollywood. Mary Gidney’s husband, Bob, was the clinic’s top authority on paranoid schizophrenia. “You mean there’s a guy at Ashland who treats only grown men who buy toy fire engines and Daisy Red Ryder air rifles?” said Otis, who may have been one of a handful of Eurekans over the age of fourteen who hadn’t had at least one session with some kind of Ashland professional. “Mary said there’s probaby even a name for what you have, but she couldn’t place what it was. Some kind of syndrome or ‘ism’ or ‘philia.’ ” “BB-ism? Fire-truck-ism? Air-rifle-philia?” “I’m serious, Otis. It has to do with men turning back into children,” Sally said, waving him away as if he were a problem child. “There was a play, and a movie, in the seventies about some New Mexico weirdos, and one of them thought he was Red Ryder. It was called When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder, I believe.” “And they’ve got someone at the world-famous Ashland Clinic who treats Kansas weirdos with Red-Ryder-itis?” Again, Sally waved him off. Otis ignored her Ashland suggestion and kept up his daily shooting. What he quit doing was reporting his daily scores to Sally. Within two more weeks, he was up to hitting bull’s-eyes at least ten out of every twenty shots. It made him wonder if there were competition shoots for the BB gun. Think of the trophies, the glory, the fame—the T-shirts, the pennants, the embroidered patches, the autographed photos. He laughed out loud at the prospect of telling Sally he was going to be gone for a weekend competing in the official Daisy Red Ryder Air Rifle Championship in someplace like Pagosa Springs, Colorado. otis girard halstead of Sedgwicktown and Sally Jewell Winfield of Independence had met thirty-nine years earlier while students at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. She had come to KU to get a degree in drama and left with one in English. He had come with no plans other than to graduate and left with a degree in business administration. Sally’s drama interest came with her from Independence, which was the hometown of William Inge, the playwright who won awards and fame for his straightforward plays—Come Back, Little Sheba, Bus Stop, Picnic, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, among others—about the ordinary people of small-town America. Sally’s parents ran Winfield’s, a small dry-goods store on Main Street that Sally’s grandfather had started in the late 1800s. The Inge influence permeated the whole town, particularly the schools, which sent more than one kid out into the world wanting to be a playwright or novelist, director, actor, or actress. Sally Winfield’s Inge thing had been acting. Her dream had been to portray the lead females in all of William Inge’s plays on any and every stage in America and the world. She and Otis met while she was playing such a role. He was in the student infirmary at KU, recuperating from a broken ankle; she was there with a group of drama students to provide entertainment for the student patients as part of a class project. Otis was in pain, unable to walk, and certain his life was in ruin when this beautiful blond creature came into the ward. She and a crew- cut guy from Wichita wearing cowboy boots did a scene from near the end of Bus Stop. She played Cherie, who was being asked by a young man named Bo to come away and marry him. “Cherie . . . it’s awful hard for a fella, after he’s been turned down once, to git up enough guts to try again.” “Ya don’t need guts, Bo.” “I don’t?” “It’s the last thing in the world ya need.” “Well . . . Anyway, I just don’t have none now, so I’ll just have to say what I feel in my heart.” “Yeah?” “I still wish you was goin’ back to the ranch with me, more ’n anything I know.” “Ya do?” “Yeah, I do.” “Why, I’d go anywhere in the world with ya now, Bo. Anywhere at all.” “Ya would? Ya would?” Otis decided there and then that once he got back on his feet and out of this place, he was going to find that blond student actress and do everything in his power to persuade her to go to his ranch or wherever with him. He found her three years later. Otis had to first find a job before taking on a wife and family. They stayed in touch and saw each other often, but Sally spent the time working in her parents’ store in Independence. Her life with Otis, when it did begin, was one that had no stage appearances in any William Inge play, or any other, for that matter. Sally’s drama professor at KU—a retired stage character actor named Overbrook—had preached the message that acting was a life, not a hobby. So she put it completely aside, to be first a wife, and then a mother—delayed for an additional four years after marriage until Otis could see a solid long-term future at Kansas Central Fire and Casualty—and a good citizen of Eureka, Kansas. Sally and Otis had had only one real conversation about her stage career that never was. They were driving alone together on the interstate back to Eureka from Kansas City, where they had just seen Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs at the Lyric Theatre. It was a special revival touring performance starring Pat Hingle and Teresa Wright, who had played the lead characters, Rubin and Cora Flood, in the original Broadway production several years before. Otis and Sally were in their mid-forties, but he had been struck on this particular evening by how young and beautiful Sally still looked. Her bright blond hair, which she wore straight and shoulder- length, shone like an exquisite silk crown, her soft brown eyes were like jewels in that crown, her complexion was like the tan coating on a piece of elegant enameled china . . . “You could have been as good—and as famous—an actress as Teresa Wright, if you had chosen that instead of me,” Otis said. “We’ll never know, will we?” Sally replied. At first Otis thought he detected a tone of anger and remorse, longing and disappointment, but then she said, “And that’s probably just as well, Otis. I never found out for sure, so I will always have my what-if dream instead of disappointment.” A few miles farther down the highway, Otis asked, “If you had known I was going to be bald, would you have given me even a second look, much less given up your acting dream for me?” Sally reached over with her left hand and caressed the top of his hairless head. But she said not a word.