Imagine a young boy and his estranged father on the road traveling across the United States on their way to California. Imagine also, the boy and his father having one adventure after another and along the way, the boy and his father both learn something about themselves and each other. Could anything be more romantic in a post-World War II, Kerouac world?
However, in Michael C. Keith’s brilliant and moving memoirs, The Next Better Place: Memories of my Misspent Youth, a coming-of-age story set in the 1950s, the story is much more complex and poignant.
Keith takes readers on an amazing and memorable journey as father and son leave Albany, New York on their way to California. Their journey is fraught with one misadventure after another as they travel by bus and hitchhike across America in the 1950s. Half Kerouac and half Stephen King’s “Stand by Me” this coming-of-age story is just as much a story about a father and his son having the chance to spend some quality time together as it is about the son’s valuable life lessons he learns on the road.
Along the way, the narrator and his father meet an interesting and colorful assortment of individuals who pose all sorts of problems and windfalls. I love the way Keith wove these characters into the story and how each one’s back story added to the overall story of Keith and his father. One of the more memorable moments in his book (and there were many!) was when they were picked up hitchhiking by a couple and their kids who were on their way to join a carnival. Having worked for a carnival myself, when I was the same age as Keith, I got a kick out of this part of the journey and the story. Their encounter with the family is typical of the many encounters Keith and his father have with various individuals as they criss cross the United States.
Throughout the journey, we see Keith and his father coming to terms with their fragile relationship. There are some awkward and painful moments which underpin their journey, but these moments become a defining moment in their father-son relationship. With each new adventure and in many cases, misadventure, this relationship is tested. The journey is what inextricably links Keith and his father; their survival on the road is dependent on one another if they are ever able to make it across America and eventually back home.
Each of the chapters in this poignant and moving rites of passage saga could be read as a stand-alone story. That’s where the genius of Keith is most noticeable and shines through chapter after chapter. After all, he has made a life out of writing short fiction and he knows how to control this genre/medium to its full potential and power. Readers will most assuredly savor and enjoy each chapter, perhaps even flipping back to enjoy and savor again.
This is a most impressive work from an acclaimed and award-winning author. Even if you haven’t had the chance to experience Keith’s literary achievements, The Next Better Place: Memories of my Misspent Youth is a good place to start. One thing is for certain: after you read his memoirs you are going to want to explore his other writings.