“America” is an ambitious novel. It tells a complex coming of age story of four young people, none yet teenagers when it opens. It links the stories of Mick and Tara O’Brien, who live on a dairy farm outside Nyack, New York, with that of Daisy Moran, who lives down a dirt road the next valley over, and also Troy, whose last name is never given, who craves freedom and wants to fly.

In the early part of the book, Mick’s dreams are to play football as a star quarterback, and join the Marines when he is 18. Smart, but bored by school, he is a relentless risk taker, yet privately yearns to discover what makes life worth living. Tara diligently studies classic piano, seeking to master Haydn and Mozart, but is transformed when she first hears Fats Domino and Howlin’ Wolf. It alters her life. “I like it raw,” she proclaims. Singing the blues, she discovers is like “like touching God.”

Daisy Moran is bright and loves history, biology and math, but, like Mick, questions the meaning of life, in her case because of a dark home life. Her stepfather routinely beats both her and her mother. Troy is raised in a Catholic orphanage after his father is killed in Korea and his mother’s life crumbles. He feels his world is forever constrained by the beatings and sexual assaults of the priests.

The story opens with Troy, as he “stared through the cyclone fence at the dirt road, golden meadow and forested hills beyond. He listened a moment more to the din of other boys playing in the concrete yard behind him, scrambled up the cyclone fence ripping his shirt on the barbed wire top and dashed across the meadow uphill into the cool woods.”

Escape, in one form or another, is a central theme in each of the lives of the four main characters. What initially drives them, beyond youthful angst and sexual awakening, is feeling trapped in the stupefying mindset of the time, that with the Korean war over and Ike in the White House, all is right with the world.

“America” is the first of a seven-book saga by Bond, who grew up in Portland (and was a Press Herald paper boy when he was 10, according to his publicist). Each of the seven is devoted loosely to successive decades and the seismic, pivotal events that shape the country. A line early in the book casts the quests of the main characters as seeking to find “a path with heart.” The second book in the series, “Freedom,” is also now out.

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Troy encounters Mick his first day of freedom in the woods, where Mick loves to wander. Discovering they share birthdays, they become “brothers” and embark on a walkabout together to learn things they will need to know in life, as Mick explains it. His parents perceive the natural bond between the boys, and welcome Troy into their family.

Mick and Daisy find kindship and sexual pleasure together. She encourages him to study harder. Though Tara initially detests the intrusion of Troy into her family, she eventually comes to love his kisses as they explore sexual play. Their pairing reaches a crossroads when she gets pregnant and has an abortion. Troy is subsequently tortured by the idea that they “they killed the child.” Their ardor cools, and his life turns to other things, most significantly, wanting to become a test pilot so he can go into space. After they graduate from high school, he begins his journey by attending the Air Force Academy.

Tara ends up at UC Berkeley and becomes a phenom in the Bay Area singing in black clubs. Both her and Troy’s dreams sour; Troy washes out of flight school for having poor eyesight. Embittered, he desires to go to Vietnam to kill communists.

Mick gets a football scholarship to college but nearly flunks out for lack of interest. He takes a year off to go to Paris, then to Algeria, and eventually challenges himself to undertake a nearly fatal solo sojourn across the Sahara. Near death in the desert, he questions “why do I taunt life?’ During college, Daisy goes to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer in 1964 to register black voters, where she encounters terror and tragedy.

“America” is a vast departure for Bond from writing thrillers. The plan for his multi-book saga appears designed to address all the major, seismic political and cultural events of seven successive decades. Among the critical events of the late 1950s-early 1960s that shape the country and the novel “America” are the Kennedy-Nixon election; the assassination of JFK; the explosive issue of race in America; the sexual revolution; and the escalating political morass of the Vietnam War.

Bond’s broad reach, however, often exceeds his grasp. Too often his examination of these issues are more like snapshots than deeper explorations. And he extensively discounts that cardinal axiom of fiction: “show, don’t tell.” Given the scope Bond sets for himself, the book could have been twice as long.

At the same time, the existential journeys of the characters are intriguing. Mick and Daisy’s stories carry the heart of the story, coming closest to yielding transformative “paths with heart.” The author seems, with this project, to be seeking his own path with heart.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a finalist for the Bellwether Prize and a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound. Smith can be reached via his website: frankosmithstories.com.


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