This book is the heartbreaking tale of Henry, and ex-con living in his truck with his son, Henry junior (Junior). The novel opens on Junior’s 8th birthday, but it jumps back and forth in time to explain how Henry and his son came to be living in a truck, desperately counting change at a McDonald’s trying to get his son a celebratory Big Mac meal. In alternating chapters we learn more about Henry, whose Filipino father had wanted to be professor and loved literature, and his mother, an economics professor who died of cancer while Henry was in his teens. We also learn more about Henry’s wife, Michelle, and friend Al, and the ways that their interactions lead him to his current state. In the current story line, we spend a couple of days with Henry as he tries to make his son’s birthday special and makes an attempt at getting a job (a feat that has been made even more difficult for him by being forced to check the box indicating his ex-con status). The novel is grounded in realism, and written with such fine detail that you feel as though you’re in the truck next to Henry and Junior, sweating alongside them.
There are many triggers in this book – it includes frank descriptions of substance abuse, domestic abuse, violence, mention of eating disorders, and death of a parent. It is also incredibly realistic in how it depicts the crushing inability of one person to fight against the tide of capitalism when they find themselves on the wrong side of it – to be sure, Henry’s choices play a role in what happens to him. And yet, what he struggles for throughout the entire book is the same thing that we all struggle for – we all want just a little bit of security and peace with the people that we love. We want enough blissful moments with the people we call family. Henry makes some terrible decisions, and I often disliked him as a character – but it feels like he is as bound by his poverty as he is by any decisions he makes. We watch as the chapter titles indicate his monetary value – and as it ebbs and flows, so too do our hopes for the Henry. There’s danger in seeing abundance as only the sum in your bank account – but there’s the harsh truth that in our society there’s many roadblocks to access basic necessities without money. Food, shelter, medicine – these are not guaranteed in our land of plenty. We can, and do, and should judge some of Henry’s more selfish choices – and yet, he’s still a human, his child still deserves to eat and rest and be healthy.
This book is quite heavy, and it’s difficult at time to like the people in it. It’s not a long read, but it certainly sticks with you for some time afterwards. It’s moving, and well written, but as a reader you might be mindful of putting this in your TBR pile perhaps near something a little lighter, like Piranesi or The House in the Cerulean Sea.