This is not your father’s coming of age story, the kind where the wide-eyed protagonist experiences a series of firsts–first kiss, first time getting high, first time having sex. Sure, all of those things happen to young Gene Steen, but John Vorhaus aims to go deeper into the psyche of this 15-year-old boy.
Set in Milwaukee in the summer of 1969 (“at the corner of nowhere and nowhen”) the story takes off when Gene’s hot, hippy cousin Lucy shows up at his house one day in June. Lucy has a story. Her mom (Gene’s mother’s sister) has moved to France. Her father has died in Ohio and she needs a place to stay before going off to college in the fall. But, things are not as they seem on the surface and Gene and his two buddies discover her story is a sham. Her real name is Carmen and she is secretive about her backstory.
Gene could easily blow the whistle on Carmen, but he is in love. And Carmen is on the run. And she takes Gene on a wild, dangerous road trip. But I don’t want to reveal more details about the story, because this is really about a teen-ager’s quest for the truth, for the meaning of life.
Like any teen-ager, Gene has lots of questions–about religion, about the Vietnam war, about life. And he seeks the answers from Carmen. Early on he calls her a hippy, but she sets him straight. “I’m not a hippy, Gene. I’m a practical person. In this time and this place, it’s an easy motif for me, it works. But at the end of the day I’m not anything but me.”
Still Gene struggles. He cannot accept his parents’ boring middle class life, the war, organized religion. Lying in bed one night, he visualizes those Burma Shave billboards on the side of the road.
“You Are Here and Not Here
In Your Little Car.
Wherever You Are
Is Wherever You Are.”
He doesn’t know it at the time, but it is an epiphany of sorts. Later, on the run with Carmen, he witnesses a beautiful sunset and it all comes together for him. “The pieces of the puzzle of my life all filled me all at once. I overflowed. I had the purest moment of beauty and bliss that I’ve ever had in my life and, really, for the first time felt connected to the isness…”
Gene gave that felling a name, “the bottom ache, a thing you felt so deep you know that if you don’t express it you’ll just explode.” At that moment Gene took responsibility for his life. “I accept everything.”
Vorhaus has crafted two compelling characters in Gene and Carmen. The pacing is excellent, as the setup builds suspense and the story gallops along towards a chaotic and ultimately satisfying conclusion. Looking back as an older man, Gene reflects: “I got through what I got through by being present in the moment, by accepting the now, so that’s what I’ve got to do or get to do from now on.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this story and look forward to reading more of Vorhaus’s work.