Down and dirty odyssey 

Book Review

Book Review
It is hardly unusual for Michael C. Keith to be published. His scholarly writings have been between the covers of books 17 times and in countless periodicals. What is unusual is that his new book from Algonquin Press is not on the subject of radio or TV communications, where Keith, a professor at Boston College, is a most prolific writer. Instead, this is a memoir about his life from 11 to 17 years, when he and his “sociopathic” father rambled the country, begging, grifting, stealing, sleeping in homeless shelters, working carnivals and trying to avoid predatory perverts and the law. As a good friend of Mike Keith, I naturally awaited the publication of The Next Better Place the first of this year with great anticipation. By that time, a number of prestigious critics and publications had already reviewed it quite favorably (Newsday called it “A charming and light-hearted hybrid of On the Road and Stand by Me). My take was that I had never read a picaresque tale quite like this one. It is at once uplifting and exhilarating and, at the same time, depressing and kind of smarmy. Eleven chapters are devoted to the pair’s stay in Indianapolis at Pearl’s boarding house, where they meet a lively cast of characters who influence Keith’s boyhood, mostly in negative ways. He is sent to fetch a Frishe’s Big Boy for a Mr. Waller, a man so obese he is confined to his bed. Waller eventually dies of overeating, his hand still clutching a spent Big Boy wrapper. Young Keith also is an accomplice for a woman attempting to redeem fake drug prescriptions (she is arrested and her son becomes a ward of the court) and a drifter who is marketing an auto cleaning product that proves to be impossible to remove once applied to a car. As with all of their stays on the road, they eventually slip out of town with the generous and warm-hearted Pearl left unpaid for their rent. Despite missing almost all of six years of school and never actually graduating from high school, Keith holds a doctorate degree in English literature, has a successful career in academia and, with all those books in print, has not the slightest concern about the “publish or perish” quagmire. But yes, he does make me feel deprived of some great adventure that might have been. Thanks to my own safe, secure and quite conventional childhood.

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