Broketown by David Wheeler is an excellent novel but one not to read if you are in a dark mood. If you feel that life is too routine, that there is nothing in the future that will ever improve on the current condition, that everybody is flawed and the best thing you can do is retreat within yourself and ignore unpleasantness, you are in a dark mood. This book will reinforce those feelings. On finishing this novel, I had an overwhelming feeling of despair. There was also my feeling of sadness about a life wasted in mostly meaningless activities just to fill the time until death arrives to the rescue. After reading this I will move on to a novel with graphic violence and horror just to wake up from the ennui generated by this novel. So it may come as a surprise to read that I liked this novel a lot.
Theodore Westgate Hall Junior is the narrator, protagonist, and the main source for information on all other characters. Not much is learned from the dialogue. While Theodore answers to the name Ted, many characters in the story will address him as Professor because that is what he was before his wife Shannon’s death. Her death was a type of catalyst that caused him to change his lifestyle and engage in lengthy introspection about the meaning of life. Shannon had called him a navel gazer. Ted would engage in lengthy interior monologues about existence provoked by events he observed which occurred to other characters in Buchanan’s, a bar he frequented. Frequented means daily; midway through the story he lived behind the bar in a motor home on blocks, an ex-mobile vehicle (as in it was no longer mobile) which the Professor was constantly tweaking with improvements.
Ted was not poor. There were some savings from his former occupation as a teacher. There would be some revenue from the sale of his house after his wife’s suicide and there would even be some money paid by his dead wife’s insurance policy. But Ted still felt a compulsion to work. Offered a job by his former BFF Biggsy, Ted took a job stocking shelves at Homeowner’s. Biggsy was the manager there and had offered Ted a job after finding out that Ted had arrived in Claymont in a mobile home, put the vehicle on blocks, and was living as a squatter on city-owned land. Biggsy quite possibly thought Ted was teetering on the edge of mental illness as a result of Shannon’s suicide. Biggsy wanted to help. Although the gesture seemed friendly, it was possibly not so. There was the time Ted and Biggsy’s wife had a brief fling. Ted assumed Biggsy didn’t know but that might not be true. The possible conflict here is very well done and occupies a low hum in the story as other events unfold.
Other characters stories emerge through Ted. There are the barflies, one of whom would commit murder. Another would be more clever than apparent in the bar and owned several businesses in the small town of Claymont. There was a group of Freethinkers, almost a cult whose members carried images of hippies to an extreme and were concerned with erasing carbon footprints. There would be conflicts with barflies who defended their bottled status quo. The Professor occupied a middle ground in these conflicts and tried to mediate arguments if it didn’t cost too much energy or tax his limited motivation.
Ted wallowed in despair. His father had moved the family around every couple of years, possibly to avoid gambling debts. He drank himself to death within two years. His mother then took to alcohol and died two years later. He and sister Kate survived but had a distant relationship. His wife Shannon had an equally bad family background. Her father had promised a trip to Disneyland to Shannon and sister Veronica. Instead, he disappeared. Sister Veronica turned to Heroin. After years of marriage to Ted, Shannon committed suicide. But she left Ted a note. That note would drive Ted deeper into despair and would change his life so that he became a true navel gazer and storyteller.
This is a very entertaining and well-written book. It is just dark and depressing. Can we then conclude that depression is good? In this novel, it is.