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Book Review: Being Henry David by Cal Armistead

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From the first sentence, we are whisked into the world of Being Henry David, in lockstep with a young man who doesn’t know who he is, where he is, or why he’s there. Having no past, he has no connection with his identity, and he latches onto the one thing that belongs to him (or at least was found on his person): a copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

The young man, taking the name Henry David, becomes “Hank” and we are beside him as he discovers, moment by moment, the story of his past and the kind of person he is. It is like opening up Russian Dolls, with one persona nestled inside this nugget from the past, and then another persona locked inside a second nugget, and we wonder what the final doll will reveal.Hank meets a host of characters who, like him, hold multiple personas enclosed in a complex framework—such as the confident jock with stage fright and the neat-freak hoarder Magpie.

Armistead paints a poignant yet gritty tale, capturing the heart of people with a few crafted words. He establishes the various worlds within New York City, Maine, and Concord, Massachusetts, with a deftness that would not be expected from a debut novelist.

Hank’s relationship with Henry David Thoreau lends a magical-realism quality to the prose, bringing something otherworldly into a harsh and sometimes terrifying existence. What if we didn’t know ourselves yet sensed something evil inside? How could we reconcile the goodness of our actions with the desperation held hostage in our hearts?

The extraordinary thing is that while we don’t know who Hank is, we connect with him, and root for him. We are drawn in—despite the possibility that he may be someone we would otherwise cast aside. The choices that Hank makes, we would likely make in his place, and we wait, with bated breath, as his story reaches an end. While the story is sometimes bumpy and painfully slow, the conclusion is exquisitely crafted, and worth the journey to discover it.

(Also, as I review galley copies, it is difficult to know exactly how the final copy will flow—the occasional typos, missed bridges, inconsistencies, tense issues, point-of-view violations, and other areas I tripped on as a reviewer will likely be polished for the consumer version.)

Being Henry David speaks on universal themes of the identity crisis we all face, in trying to work out who we are against who we are supposed to be; of the power and of the possibility of redemption; and of the quandaries of what life is worth when it seems there is nothing left to lose.

You may preorder Being Henry David, which is set to release on March 1st.

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About Joanna Celeste

Joanna Celeste is at heart a storyteller, writing reviews, short stories, poems, articles and the occasional novel-in-progress, as well as interviewing others to discover their point of view, in the celebration of story. She welcomes emails from her readers at joanna_celeste [at] ymail.com, though she is currently booked for reviews through to January 2014. Visit her at http://joannaceleste.com