- From Our Own
Joseph Haske's North Dixie Highway is a novel about unfinished business, of the ties that bind, and the suffocating notion of "duty." Haske has crafted a revenge tale that spans two decades, two continents, and at least four generations. Michigan's sparsely-populated Upper Peninsula presses its thickly-forested mass against every page; with Haske's pen as spade, it reluctantly coughs up its skeletal remains, the gorgeously-rendered landscape a pristine yet haunting veneer, at once spacious and claustrophobic. Buck Metzger, progeny of war and a generations-spanning blood feud, narrates, his childhood in the mid-1980s defined by economic hardship and booze-soaked lessons in familial loyalty (think Hatfields and McCoys in the Upper Midwest). The action of the novel alternates between Buck Metzger's youth in 1983-1984, and his return from tours of duty in the Gulf War and Bosnia, in 1994-1995. Metzger is a powder-keg; he is gripped by an overwhelming desire for revenge on Lester Cronin, his grandfather's murderer, and he drinks to suppress his perceived shortcomings and the traumas of war. He is haunted by unrequited love and plagued by gnawing uncertainty. Buck knows only conflict. He is adrift with his only lifeline the often-destructive bonds of family, pulling him back in, plunging into yet another landscape eerily reminiscent of the battlefields he thought he left behind.
As you might expect, Hemingway is an obvious touch-stone for Haske—at one point a young Buck notices a picture of Hemingway and his principal fishing on the principal's desk, a tasteful nod, though Haske's unadorned prose would belie the influence even if it weren't noted at several points in the novel. Readers may also see parallels with Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990) and Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country (1985). The specter of Vietnam looms large in the form of Buck's Ranger veteran father and his Uncle Tony Vega. Death is omnipresent; tracer rounds scream over Sarajevo, Buck's father stalks a bear through dense forest with only a hunting knife and bow-and-arrow, thirty-year legends betray their lies with the discovery of bodies previously swallowed by the unbroken timber belt. The ghost of retribution hangs like a thick fog over everything, often clouding the narrator's sense of judgement. Old flames and old wars collide simultaneously in Buck's mind's eye and his temporal reality, alcohol an analgesic that only seems to confuse and distort, not numb. The past cannot stay buried—it festers like an infected wound untreated. The fatalistic reader might believe Buck's path was already set from childhood, with abuse, pain, and an ethos of frontier justice constant companions. It is a perversion of the American libertarian stereotype—pulling oneself up by the bootstraps leaves the hands soaked and bloody. The hallowed ground is a graveyard.
Haske's world is a cold one. Calculating revenge plots poison generations, and flights of passion give way to wild miscalculations; death begets more death, and one murder, seemingly the narrative's lynch-pin, reverberates outward to tragically encompass a number of lives. Haske adeptly shifts the novel's action through time and space, and he displays an almost uncanny sense of when to make "the big reveal." He parcels out information through a variety of means and voices, with a young Buck Metzger often serving as a fly-on-the-wall for otherwise closed conversations. As a man a decade later struggling with identity and purpose, the horrors of discovery often become entangled with his severe alcoholism and, not to mix cause and effect, post-traumatic stress disorder. That Buck often finds himself re-discovering things only adds to his tragedy, where truth and self-discovery are at once elusive and attained only to be re-set; and yet, Buck's moral ambiguity, indeed the moral ambiguity of so many of the novel's characters, complicates a sense of...