The Travels of Annie T. Hastings purports to be the true-life journals of the editor’s mother. Without any background information other than what is offered within the book itself, one must take this claim at face-value, I suppose. Which may be its Achilles heel. More on that in a moment.
The concept is definitely intriguing: a man finds his mother’s old journals after she passes away, then discovers that she has lived quite the adventure during her later years. The story goes that Ms. Hastings decided to embark on a road-trip with her dog from west coast to east in search of her long-lost daughter, given up for adoption thirty years earlier. His mother, he has realized, has written an On the Road for the geriatric set. Annie encounters the typical array of misfits that one inevitably is confronted with while on a pilgrimage of any significant distance. We are presented, through the eyes of Annie, with, among others, truckers, prudish nuns, bitchy female college students who think they know everything (I couldn’t help but recall that scene in “Fried Green Tomatoes” when Kathy Bates is about to pull into a parking space and the twenty-something girl zips her car into the space just before she can pull into it, saying “Face it, I’m younger and faster.” To which Bates responds by ramming the younger girl’s car out of the way with the rejoinder, “I’m older, and have more insurance.”) The actual physical travel coincides with that requisite inner journey of soul-discovery unfolding, and includes, by novel’s (?) end, the needed redemption that readers of this type of writing demand in order to feel satisfied with what they have just read.
The writing here, whether actually written by a woman in her seventies or a 40 year old man masquerading as an old woman in order to appeal to a certain demographic, nonetheless holds true to the tone and voice of a set-in-her-ways elderly person: “This day would put a smile on Ahab. Some mystical alchemist has finally turned crap to gold.” Here we have a reference to Ahab, of Moby Dick fame—the consummate angry sonuvabitch—who, despite a lifetime of miserly experiences, would still be inclined to crack a smile when he saw the sun rising in an otherwise shit-brown world. My own grandmother (rest her soul) could (and would) have said or written something similar. Mixed metaphors be damned, this is how an elderly woman who has gone through a life-time of struggle would talk.
However—and this might seem an insignificant detail—when one is reading a book of this nature, that is not designated as a novel or a memoir, then the willing suspension of disbelief becomes far harder to maintain for the reader. At times I had trouble believing I was reading mere journal entries. At the very least they had to have been “spiced up” by her over-eager son-cum-editor, right? Some of the descriptions in this book are just too …descriptive to be taken directly from somebody’s journal. I wanted to know if this impression was merely my own, though, so I asked a friend’s mother (a voracious reader) if she’d give the book a spin. She is of a similar age as the Annie whose journals purportedly constitute the book.
My friend’s mother started reading during a two hour stint at her swimming pool. She called me five pages in.
“There’s too much description in this or something.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I just think that nobody would actually write this way in a journal they weren’t intending for public consumption. I mean, she calls the sun Phoebus at one point! Who does that?”
“OK, well, you don’t have to read it. I just thought you might find it interesting.”
“Oh, I still want to keep reading it. Just thought I’d point that out.”
She ended up reading the majority of the book in one sitting.
So what does it all mean, interested potential readers of potentially interesting self-published material? I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Because at the end of the day, any time I pick up a book that has been published by the self as opposed to The House, I think it is natural for most people to ask themselves what it was lacking in that it couldn’t get ‘picked up’ by a mainstream publisher. I think this initial taint on the self-published work is slowly peeling away as more and more quality self-published works find their niche audiences, but it’s going to take more than one Dave Eggers willingly foregoing the traditional publishing route for the majority of regular readers to really give this publishing form a fair shake. And I think the main proof one needs to bolster the claim that there are works just as worthy of reading through the self-publishing model as through the traditional form can be seen in my friend’s mother’s initial reaction to this book. Her un-willing suspension of disbelief can be seen as that part of the critical mind that wants to nitpick the shit out of a book that otherwise held her attention. The fact that she continued reading even though “nobody would write in a journal like that” is the proof that anything written with an attention to craft and detail—self-published or not—is as readable as anything with a publisher’s stamp on the cover.
This book has an audience that need only be found. Of course, that’s the hardest part for all writers. And we all came into this thing thinking if we did that whole writerly “staring at the blank page until blood formed on our forehead” thing, then the hard part was over. It’s still hard to make the blood exit the pores, no question, but I couldn’t help but lament the fact that a book of this caliber wasn’t going to be making the rounds of many a mid-western book club circuit. I’ve no doubt it would find as big an audience as the latest Jodi Picoult novel. Because when all is said and done, the suspension of disbelief does come on, quickly, and holds on, for the most part, until the last page.