Review of I Am the Light of This World by Michael Parker @algonquinbooks

Blurb: In the early 1970s, in Stovall, Texas, seventeen-year-old Earl—a loner, dreamer, lover of music and words—meets and is quickly infatuated with Tina, the new girl in town. Tina convinces Earl to drive her to see her mother in Austin, where Earl and Tina are quickly separated. Two days later, Earl is being questioned by the police about Tina’s disappearance and the blood in the trunk of his car. But Earl can’t remember what happened in Austin, and with little support from his working-class family, he is sentenced for a crime he did not commit.

 Forty years later, Earl is released into an America so changed that he can barely navigate it. Determined to have the life that was taken from him, he settles in a small town on the Oregon coast and struggles to overcome the emotional toll of incarceration. But just as Earl finds a chance to begin again, his past returns to endanger the new life he’s built.

 Steeped in the music and atmosphere of the 1970s, I Am the Light of This World is a gritty, gripping, and gorgeously written story of the impulsive choices of youth, redemption, mercy, and the power of the imagination.

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It’s very rare for me to finish a novel and not know exactly what I think, whether I liked it, what it meant, what, what, what, but here I am. This review may be muddled so apologies.

At the opening of I Am the Light of This World by Michael Parker, Earl, a small-town-Texas-17-year old boy, frequently described by others as being apart, a dreamer, is falling for a girl named Tina who he met in the woods. She weaves a story about a mother in an asylum, who she must visit. Despite not having a license, Earl borrows a car from his cousin, Leif, and drives Tina to Austin where it soon becomes obvious that Tina doesn’t want to visit her mother, but actually an old boyfriend who can give her the party she wants. Things take a bad turn with Earl ending up in prison. When he gets out, forty years later, the world has changed so much that he feels like an alien, although in some ways, he always has been.

Because of Earl’s “otherness,” it’s difficult to know just how reliable of a narrator he is, even insofar as to wonder if his recollection of events in Austin was real due to the ending of the novel, which I’ll not share here. If we assume that what Earl says happened, really happened, then he becomes part of a system that doesn’t work. He’s a tragic character who has been let down by society. He’s a gentle dreamer who’s had to survive in the worst part of America. However, the ending points to more than just a gentle dreamer but to a do-anything-to-survive-type of person or has this part of Earl always existed? I don’t know. I certainly would never have had that thought until the end. But things happen when Earl is under the influence, some not-very-nice-things. And, yet, after Earl’s release from prison, he associates with some perceptive people who seem to think the world of him. Is he that? Is he a kind, good person? Gentle? Or is he deceptive? And maybe this reading is just me (probably, as well as my current mindset) because I certainly haven’t read any one else voice this.

When I read the title “I Am the Light of This World,” I truly thought I was reading an inspirational novel. I did a little search and discovered it’s the title of a religious blues song (is that a thing?) and presume that’s where the title came from since Earl’s obsession with music may be even greater than mine. (ha.) I Am the Light of This World is sometimes sarcastically funny but mostly it’s sad with a predetermined sadness, so, no, not inspirational. It is the stuff of a blues song, however.

Apart from characters and plot, there is the writing that is seriously beguiling. There is something entrancing about Michael Parker’s writing style that made me want to keep reading despite not actively enjoying the story. Feeling compelled to read material that is sometimes painful suggests, to me, a very gifted writer and makes me want to read his back titles. Perhaps this will give me a further clue as to what I just read. Ah, yes, I am willing to concede cluelessness (again).

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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