- Riding Shotgun into the Promised Land
John Lloyd Purdy’s novel, Riding Shotgun into the Promised Land, follows the writings of a discharged Iraq war veteran who struggles to cobble his past and present into anything that will illuminate a path for his future. Coping with the loss of his brother, a fellow vet who died in the war the protagonist left behind, Purdy’s anti-hero strikes out across the Oregon Trail—paved and freckled by modern people with updated problems. As a decidedly unlucky, “behind [the] times” character, the protagonist finds himself encountering a string of calamities, the fallout of each pushing him farther along the historic trail (3).
As the narrative leapfrogs from incident to incident, there is little that threads it together beyond the protagonist’s undeniable urge to keep moving—most of the themes and metaphors, introduced early in the novel, fail to develop as the story progresses to different vignettes. By the end of the read, little can be made of Purdy’s decision to cast his protagonist as a returned veteran. The significance of his military service is never fully developed. The specific identity of the protagonist’s fractured family is replaced with allusions to broader and more nebulous ancestry that the protagonist picks up in his travels. And though Purdy’s America has plenty of room for cause and consequence, even after the protagonist accidentally murders a scientist, there is only a limited sense of impending doom for him. At most, we expect this action to propel the novel into a new setting where the heat from the earlier preceding action promptly cools off and the next predicament begins to heat up. For better and worse, Purdy’s readers are stuck with the protagonist for 224 pages.
Perhaps rightly so, Riding Shotgun smacks of other important western American authors such as Brady Udall and his novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint (2001). However, unlike Udall, Purdy focuses on the presentation of contemporary people-problems typical of the American Northwest. He is less concerned with crafting a narrative centered on the art of language, voice, rhythm, and prose in general than Udall. This shift in narrative focus pushes Purdy’s novel from the category of literary fiction closer to folklore as examined through fiction. Prose notwithstanding, Riding Shotgun into the Promised Land showcases the personal struggle against fate that readers love most about human stories. The dialogic interchange between characters, large and small in narrative context, is [End Page 317] fresh and often pointed. Riding Shotgun’s best moments portray our knack as humans to talk at one another rather than with one another, offering only brief, albeit treasured, windows for a handful of characters to shine a light of good will on their fellows.