“…It was then that I realized that my lonely childhood had come to a reverberating halt. This moment in time would forever be seared into my psyche, destined to become part of the psychological baggage that I would carry upon my shoulders for the rest of my life. That was how I spent my thirteenth birthday.”
I picked up The Long Road From Perdition with much interest given the story summary and I was not disappointed. In this novel author J.R. Stone has written a moving tale of the life of Nicholas Fontenot, a precocious yet sensitive teenager who lives in an abusive home and is suddenly thrust into a dangerous world, which he must navigate on his own.
On his thirteen birthday, Nicholas witnesses a horrific murder and his world is torn apart. Abandoned by his remaining family he becomes a ward of the state while awaiting news on whether he’ll be charged for the crime he witnessed, but did not commit. He is forced into the foster care system where he experiences even more misery, abuse and danger until he escapes at the age of fifteen. Nicholas draws his strength to persevere and seek a better life for himself from his older brother and protector Josh who is always with him in spirit.
On his journey to find safety, Nicholas meets a kindred spirit in Charley, a drag queen and owner of an off the beaten path gay bar in New Orleans. Charley and a host of colourful characters that work in the bar become Nicholas’ extended family. Yet, his troubled past continues to haunt him until he is tragically forced to leave Charley and New Orleans the only happy home he has ever known. Nicholas’ road from hell and his journey to find peace and his place in the world is a long and difficult one.
The story spans some ten years and is narrated by an adult Nicholas through a well written first person retrospective as he looks back on his life and his quest to find safety, love and a home of his own. This provides the reader with an intimate account of Nicholas’ experiences and emotional journey and the changes that the character undergoes throughout the novel. This also serves to engross the reader in Nicholas’ compelling story from the very first page.
I found the author’s writing style to be quite an interesting mixture of realism and romanticism, with strong elements of the American southern gothic tale. While the author does not hold back in describing the harshness and horror of Nicholas’ reality, in particular during the first part of the story, the writing style also provides somewhat of a buffer to this reality allowing the reader to safely remain with Nicholas throughout his journey and yet not lose the emotional impact of all that the character experiences throughout the novel.
There is a large cast of prominent and occasional secondary characters that represent a range of the types of people that a young boy in Nicholas’ circumstances would likely meet during his journey. The author well-captures the many horrific incidents and injustices that Nicholas suffers at the hands of both his family and other adults however, what is equally well-captured by the author and what struck me most is the level of indifference that a teenage boy in Nicholas’ shoes experiences by a child welfare system that is suppose to protect him from abuse and neglect.
Nicholas finds respite, love, family and a home with Charley and several of the people that work for him at the bar in New Orleans. Considered outcasts from society themselves, they readily accept Nicholas as one of their own. Nicholas spends six years with his adopted family in New Orleans working at the bar. In this, the author aptly conveys the message that blood relations are not necessary for a true sense of family. Nicholas also forms a committed love relationship with Charley. I felt that the author handled Nicholas’ sexual awakening within the context of this relationship, as well as Charley’s understanding and patience with sensitivity, honesty and a sense of realism, as it is with Charley that Nicholas learns to trust and matures into manhood. At the same time though, I also felt that little more page time delving into this aspect of Nicholas’ life would have further enhanced an already well written character, and would have provided more insight into the issues faced by Nicholas in respect of his sexual coming of age given the nature of the abuse he experienced as a child and teenager.
The author also infuses elements of the mystical and spiritual in this novel through both Nicholas’ brother Josh and the character of Chase, who is introduced in the latter part of the story and who Nicholas meets on his journey when he is once again on his own after tragically fleeing his home in New Orleans. I found this a very interesting twist in the story because during this part of the novel Nicholas’ life takes on a surreal quality, whereby both the character and by extension the reader are uncertain as to whether this is a dream or Nicholas’ fictional reality. This aspect of the writing is highly effective in emphasising Nicholas’ emotional growth and his realisation and understanding of the necessary steps he needs to take in order to find the inner peace he has been so desperately seeking. The character of Chase serves as pivotal in this respect because he is the catalyst that helps Nicholas sift through the hurt and pain of his life to ultimately find himself.
The secrets of Nicholas’ family are revealed at story’s end and with this he does gain a level of understanding and closure in respect of his past. In this sense the story ends on a note of hope, although Nicholas will likely always wear the hidden scars of his childhood and adolescence, and mourn his losses. While the ending felt a little rushed, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was completely enveloped in the character of Nicholas and his journey throughout.
The Long Road From Perdition is a poignant and compelling story that is written with care and sensitivity and the character of Nicholas is not one that is easily forgotten.