The road trip as a remedy for a sunken spirit is such a literary chestnut that it ought to occupy its own shelf in the bookstore, a testament to its status as equal parts cliché and crowd-pleaser. Wyoming native Ron Franscell sets out on this well-trod road with his latest, a travelogue/memoir called “The Sourtoe Cocktail Club,” but thankfully, he never settles into the grooves worn deep by previous travelers. This is an uncommon work, intimate and penetrating, and one in which Franscell lays himself bare in the most vulnerable of ways.
A few words about the title: “The Sourtoe Cocktail Club,” subtitled “The Yukon Odyssey of a Father and Son in Search of a Mummified Toe ... and Everything Else,” is what Franscell and his 20-year-old son, Matt, propose to join by driving to Dawson City, Yukon Territory, and consuming a drink garnished with a mummified human toe. This is the trip’s holy grail, and yet it probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that by the time the drink is consumed and lips have touched the toe — a must for inclusion in the club — it’s little more than a footnote, no pun intended. The real story is what happens both on the road and back home while father and son are finding their way to each other in the confines of a rented camper and in the open spaces and crushing beauty of Canada.
When the book opens, Franscell is a broken man — divorced and detached from his children, spinning out his working life as a journalist in small towns and motels because he has nothing approximating home to go to. He aches with the suspicion that he’s becoming the sort of absentee father who drifted through his own life. It’s in this area where the book transcends stories of a similar flavor. This isn’t just a road book, or a buddy book, or a wacky adventure book. It is, rather, a book of the heart and a deconstruction and rebuilding of a family’s past and present. Franscell, who has displayed his considerable gifts of narrative nonfiction in such books as “The Darkest Night” and “Delivered From Evil,” is equally at ease turning the microscope on the difficult details of his own life and in chronicling the absurdity of renting a camper from a Canadian outfit that never met a surcharge it didn’t like.
As Franscell and his son make their way north, their love for each other is evident — and so are the fissures that have developed in their relationship. At times, readers will cringe at Franscell’s ham-handed attempts to goad his son into conversation (because that’s what dads do, right?). And Matt’s anger at and frustrations with his father simmer on the pages, playing out in a chronic unwillingness to engage — until at last he blows up at the older man, bloodlessly obliterating him in their myriad debates about music, art and life.
While the book does capture that aggression, seemingly pulling the reader into the middle of a family quarrel, so too does it lilt with love and tenderness. While the two of them are in a camper in the northern reaches of the continent, life goes on back at home. Matt’s dog dies, a particularly heartbreaking moment that Franscell recounts with a sure touch. And Franscell finds himself drawn, inexorably, into the realization that the kind of love he figures he has lost forever is still out there, calling him home.
If there’s any quibble with this book, it’s a terribly minor one: Franscell’s lucid storytelling voice is underpinned by an impressive vocabulary, and he can occasionally be caught leaning a bit too heavily on a favored word. “Prickle,” for example, is the sort of robust noun that is watered down when it’s used twice in just a few pages.
But that’s just a mosquito smashed by a windshield in the scheme of things. This is a powerful book, one that reminds us that while we can’t always know where the road goes with the ones we love, it’s worth our time to take the trip.
Craig Lancaster is the
Gazette’s copy desk chief and the author of two novels, “600 Hours of Edward” and “The Summer Son.” His latest book, a collection of short stories called “Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure,” comes out in December.