(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUN 4, 2006)
"Facing backwards on a moving train is the story of my life." So says Charles Puckman, Jr., a 50-something, grizzled, wrinkled, rumpled stranger to Stardust Nadia, a thirty year-old free-spirited woman who just lost her mother. They're on a moving train - to New York City...and Charlie is, in fact, seated facing the opposite direction from their eventual destination.
Stardust doesn't know it yet, but she and Charlie are connected, through her mother, Lorraine Nadia, who is dead, somewhere on a Swiss mountain top, and events which occurred in the 1960's - a time of tremendous social upheaval, political assassinations, the Vietnam War, sex, drugs and rock n' roll.
Lorraine, a single parent, refused to answer Stardust's persistent questions about her father's identity. So Stardust knows nothing about the man who sired her. As a matter of fact, she knows little about the woman who bore and raised her. What she does know she learned from "things her mother left around the house - movie ticket stubs, toll booth receipts, scribbled notes," etc.. And she is very aware that her Mom took pleasure from planning and organizing and taking vacations. Lorraine was on vacation in Switzerland when she died.
Through Stardust's meeting with Charlie, the reader learns about Puckman's troubled history. He faced serious jail time in the 1990's for his role in an industrial accident, as well as for egregious crimes against the environment, most of which his brother and father were responsible for - a story within the story.
Author Don Silver takes us on a nonlinear trip down memory lane and into the past of Puckman, an MIT student in the late 60's. Back then, he was an extremely shallow, drugged-out space cadet with little to contribute to society in general or to anyone in particular, for that matter. (My opinion here - you may feel otherwise after reading the novel). He made his way, and tuition, by dealing drugs. Chuck hooked up with Lorraine Nadia, a pseudo-radical and overall do-nothing who believed she was a social and political activist, and Frederick Keane, a narcissistic nut case who would become the infamous "Volcano Bomber." Together they formed a social and sexual menage-a-trois and fed into each other's neuroses.
The narrative sometimes faces backward, like Charlie, shuttling between his, Lorraine's and Frederick's coming of age in the Age of Aquarius - Charlie's present, with his truly innovative new business and the opportunity to redeem himself - the criminal adventures of Charlie's obnoxious brother Arthur - Stardust's efforts to form a clear picture of her mother's past and her search for Frederick, who might be her father - and the musings of an aging FBI agent who dedicated his life and career to search for the Volcano Bomber. All these seemingly disparate elements do come together eventually and provide more than occasional entertainment.
The plot and subplots are lamely connected by the Symbionese Liberation Army's kidnapping of Patty Hearst in 1974. I guess Silver uses this event as a device to ground the reader in the "dark side" of the period, as opposed to the idealism of the flower children and the dedicated political and social activists. I don't think this works well at all and found the entire SLA business and the fictional characters who support this subplot to be absolutely superfluous.
Mr. Silver was too young to have participated in the events he writes about. His disillusionment with that time is the disappointment of a bystander, after the fact, not a participant. My memories are different - although granted, many young folks back then were overly enjoying the excesses of the age rather than contributing anything of value. Most of my memories are of the young men and women who joined the Peace Corps and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), and those who worked for and with the Civil Rights Movement, the young people involved in politics and the difference they made with their campaigning for Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern. There were others who protested the Vietnam War, within the system, on moral and legal grounds. Then there were the young innovators in the arts, music and literature. So, yes, although there was much darkness in the 1960's and 70's, much of it was not caused by the youth.
OK. Off my platform. Back to Backward-Facing Man. Although the narrative manifests some of the excesses of the generation it portrays, it is worth the read. Obviously I did not enjoy the 1960's portion - too flimsy and as spacy as the druggie characters, the rest of the plot is original and well written.
- Amazon readers rating: from 10 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Backward-Facing Man at HarperCollins.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Backward-Facing Man (August 2005)
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- Official website for Don Silver
- Beatrice Guest: Don Silver
- Reading Guide for Backward-Facing Man
- Pittsburgh Tribune review of Backward-Facing Man
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About the Author:
Don Silver was a manager of A&R at Arista Records after college. In 1982, he started a music production production company, which produced a top 10Disco hit, two rock albums and studio album by the group, Orleans, before the company went bankrupt. He returned to Philadelphia to work in his family's manufacturing business in 1984 and was the president of the company in ten years. In 1999, after getting his master of fine arts from Bennington College, he left corporate America to become a full-time writer.