It’s amazing how much substance William Wells packs into his novel Ride Away Home (The Permanent Press), which spans a mere 168 pages.
The epigraph, from Dante’s Inferno, helps to quickly frame what’s to come: “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” The narrator of Ride Away Home, 50-something Jack Tanner (who is a big-firm tax attorney), cannot imagine at the start of his journey that he will soon be faced with a crisis that will take his measure as a man, and as a human being—but he does know he’s lost and has entered a dark place of the soul. The reader meets Jack in the first paragraph, as he casually describes the 2,300-mile trip he’s just embarked on from his home in Edina, outside Minneapolis—on a brand-new “kick-ass” Harley-Davidson Road King Classic, clad in leather, booted up and “bubble-helmeted.”
With an amused, detached take on himself (a characteristic that endears him to the reader), Jack realizes he’s doing something odd, likely destructive, but then again what could have been more disorienting than the tragedy that precipitated his strange odyssey? Out of the blue, he got a call about the disappearance of his only child, Hope, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, where she was a bright, popular and excellent student. Shortly after that, he receives the shattering news that his daughter was probably murdered. Jack’s beloved wife Jenna, unable to cope, suffers a breakdown, and he winds up putting her in a sanatorium in Virginia. It’s far away and expensive, especially after his firm lets him go, but the place is pleasant, and it’s the best he can do. Months go by. The local and state police, the FBI and a compassionate P.I. have come up empty handed, but Jack has learned that Hope had been seeing a wealthy, spoiled young man, Slater Babcock, who was questioned by the police but let go for lack of evidence. Jack has come to believe that Babcock, now living in Key West, murdered Hope, and he determines to find and confront him. What will this decent man do? Does he have the guts of his shoot-to-kill neighbor who found a burglar in his home? Though the narrative rouses curiosity, what Ride Away Home primarily delivers is an episodic tale full of unexpected turns and glimpses of small-town America, evocative descriptions of out-of-the-way places and unusual characters, most of whom befriend Jack and sympathize with his plight. But he is not deterred from his quest.
Wells has a rich professional history that includes rock music criticism and staff assignments for various newspapers, doing an internationally syndicated comic strip and writing speeches for the Governor of Michigan. A former journalist in the Navy, he founded and headed up a custom publishing company. His B.A. in English (Hamilton College) shows. After a motorcycle accident, Jack wonders, “To continue or not to continue, that is the question.” Wells knows how to craft prose that is efficient and rhythmic. Most of all, however, he knows how to create engaging characters. Especially memorable are The Devil’s Disciples, who befriend Jack after he (and his cycle) are “taken” by a hippie hitchhiker. The Disciples, on the road to Daytona for Bike Week, turn out to be an older bunch of “successful professionals masquerading as the Wild Bunch,” Harvard and Yale guys (or “WASPy yahoos”) from Boston who bonded years ago and now welcome Jack into their fold.
The most unforgettable character is a mystery man Jack meets in the Blue Marlin Marina bar in Key West—Edward Hollingsworth, a “retired businessman” who seems to be re-channeling Hemingway (he looks like and constantly references Papa). Jack and Edward take a liking to each other, and Jack tells him why he’s come to Key West. Edward takes Jack fishing and explains that getting the big one is like finishing a novel—a distance run, not a sprint. What would Edward do about Babcock? The enigmatic Hollingsworth notes that you never know the ending of a story until you get there and see what the main character does, and if he exhibits grace under pressure at the critical moment. “We’re not there yet with your story, Jack. But trust me, we’re getting close.” (p. 145) The theme emerges with a sense of inevitability and satisfaction: “Sometimes, to get home, you have to ride away from home.”