DREAMING SOUTHERN By Linda Bruckheimer Dutton 263 pp., $23.95
What a paradox the family car trip is: At what other time are loved ones pressed together so tightly, for so long, with so little to do?
Are we there yet?
Anyone who's ever driven across the country, knee-deep in Happy Meal wrappers, playing "I Spy" until "I scream," will appreciate the comedy of "Dreaming Southern," Linda Bruckheimer's first novel.
"Surely, Lila Mae thought to herself, she could handle a car trip across country with a few high-strung, smart-alecky kids." But Lila Mae, mother of exactly four high-strung, smart-alecky kids in a 1953 Packard pulling a trailer that contains everything they own, is as wrong as she is sweet.
Fleeing their creditors after a 70-foot-long fly swatter invention fell through, her husband has gone ahead to California, leaving his family to follow from Kentucky.
This is not a good plan, but it makes a zany story. Lila Mae has no map and no sense of direction. She cannot drive in reverse, a handicap that severely limits the places she can stop. And she cannot resist the opportunity to befriend and assist every outlandish character they pass.
Though her husband made the trip in three days of hard highway driving, Lila Mae is "bound and determined to take Route 66" - singing the song the entire way. She wants to expose her children to "the mighty Mississippi,... Indian reservations and souvenir shops, covered-wagon-shaped motels, and cozy cafes serving homemade cherry pie."
Dropping in on kooky relatives, dancing with cowboys, eating in country dives, dodging gunfire, fleeing rattlesnakes, and all the while trying desperately to infuse a little enthusiasm into her bored children, Lila Mea manages to stretch this three day trip out for more than a month. Imagine if Thelma and Louise had brought their kids.
Bruckheimer has a good ear for the currents of generosity and ferocity that swirl around the car as the family barrels along the back roads. Poor Becky Jean, the oldest girl, is torn between her adolescent need for guidance and the unsettling suspicion that her mother is a complete nincompoop.
Several times the novel's goofy tone recedes long enough for the tender quality of these relationships to demonstrate Bruckheimer's real depth.
Even more promising is the author's willingness to take artistic risks, as demonstrated by the end of the story when she suddenly jumps ahead 30 years. Here, the novel shifts from sitcom dialogue to internal monologue. The setting freezes in a suburban house, instead of rambling through a dozen towns. The jarring contrast makes a bittersweet comment about how quickly the children grow up and leave.
It's great fun to see a new novelist finding her way, but be prepared for a few inconveniences. There are several wrong turns, of course, and sometimes the ride is rough, but if you're eager for a comic diversion, this is a detour worth taking.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org