A little Flannery O’Connor, a little JD Salinger, a little Cormac McCarthy. That’s how I would describe David Armand’s Harlow. In fact, Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author, said, “If Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy had a literary child, its name would be David Armand. His novel combines O’Connor’s Gothic violence and sense of humor with McCarthy’s unforgiving landscapes and Old Testament themes.” I tend to agree with him.
Harlow is dark regional fiction, and Armand’s choice of present tense is different, yet speaks to the urgency of the story. The novel follows Leslie Somers, an eighteen-year-old boy who runs away from home and heads into the Louisiana backwoods to look for his father, whom he’s never met. The novel is a quick read – less than 200 pages – but it packs an emotional punch. For three days in the dark and cold of winter in the late 1980s, Leslie wanders the woods, making camp where he can and dealing with the characters, both past and present, that haunt him. He hopes that his father will be different, somehow better, than the men from his past. When Leslie finally finds Harlow, his father is not quite what he expected.
The story is a little slow starting off, but Armand establishes Leslie’s character immediately, and he’s down-to-Earth and relatable. The reader quickly learns that Leslie is searching for his father, that he hates his name (“it’s a girl’s name”), that he’s invisible to his family, and that he’s been expelled from school for fighting. You get to know Leslie, and he slowly becomes your little brother, your friend, your son, over the course of the novel. The book is really more about introspection and the boy reflecting on his past and dreaming about his future than it is about action and plot. The stream of consciousness style can get a little confusing at some points, with some sentences dragging into entire paragraphs. At the same time, the style fits the story, which stays inside Leslie’s head.
Some action punctuates the story, my favorite being a scene after Leslie first meets Harlow where they encounter a Jesus freak who decides to rob them in order to do them a favor. “After this you can forgive me and that will be an act of Christ,” the robber states. In talking with Armand, he freely admits that he has encountered very similar crazy people in Folsom, LA, where he grew up, and that’s where he drew the inspiration for the scene.
The book continues on a path of crime, destruction, and twisted relationships, and eventually father’s and son’s paths collide, leaving one of them dead and the other changed forever.
If you’re looking for an action thriller, this book is certainly not it. If you’re looking for a pick-me-up on a Sunday afternoon, this book is certainly not that either. It’s a character study into Leslie, an eighteen-year-old boy who wants nothing more than for his father to love and accept him. It’s literary fiction at its best, exploring the characters of Leslie and Harlow and showing their internal transformations. It’s a coming of age story, a dark retreat into the mind and life of a reckless, screwed up teenager. And ultimately, it’s a down home, Louisiana, country-boy book that you can curl up with and sink into during these coming cold months with a good cup of hot cocoa and a comfy blanket.