John Atkinson’s novel hits the ground running, and, though later it may meander now and then during the trip and miss a turn here and there, we quickly come to the point where “In 1959 the ground swept under my feet like a starving man scrambling for his next meal.” I’ve always been a sucker for adventure stories featuring by-his-wits, rudderless characters who land on their feet. But, even better, with the triple threat — and then some — Timekeeper, we get a book that promises a coming-of-age, picaresque, and unabashed boy-and-his-dog tale merged with the Native American tradition of the vision quest.
Straddling a late-‘50s/early-‘60s setting, this largely captivating novel follows the resourceful, sensitive but determined 14-year old half-breed Johnnyboy from Virginia, who runs away from home, finally fed up with his dictatorial and abusive father and the ridicule and misunderstanding he gets at school over his reading difficulties (which, given his intelligence, might be considered to be rooted at then rarely-recognized dyslexia). Johnnyboy hates to leave his kind-hearted and long-suffering mother, and other sympathetic relatives and friends, but, to evoke Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, there were just too many others out to “sivilize” him.”
Given his options, the open road and an uncertain future seems like a better choice. Indeed, cycles of Good Samaritans and bad luck quickly assures Johnnyboy that “I couldn’t see a tomorrow. I would have to live with being lost, lonely, and desperate for a friend and food.” Well, make that lucky to be living, with — after our hero’s initial naivety gets him into a couple brushes with death — being still lost and lonely in the Deep South.
It’s not long, however, before Johnnyboy learns the ways and means of skipping town and the bylaws of the two-lane blacktop:
“I came out onto the same road I had fled. I was wiser to the natural world but still not able to feed wild birds like Mama. But now I would become smarter than the ways of man. Life was compressed while travelling on the road. There were rules and I needed to pay attention to that. I might ride high in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler, or I might find myself in a swamp hugging a cypress tree for safety, all in the same day. Things moved that fast. When you ride with someone else, you ride with their luck, their karma. I made that rule number two. Rule number one. Learn to read people’s face’s better, Johnnyboy. Learn or die.”
As Johnnyboy hits the road again with his new set of rules, an erratic continuity and snagged chain of events takes hold upon hitchhiking for a ride in Oklahoma, where he gets the ride of his lifetime, unpredictably but ultimately encountering a few ineffable impulses and important people. Chief, a mystical medicine man, tells Johnnyboy that “there were things I had to confront but only after I got the great power.”
Our protagonist mostly had his mind on a new car, but – having always had spiritual leanings and intrigued by the Cherokee origins of his mother — he was, in addition, easily persuaded to explore the Native American side of his being. He eagerly devoured the knowledge, much more so than his former classroom studies or homework, and accepted the given “guest” name, “Timekeeper.” Exceptionally receptive to Chief’s recommended path to enlightenment, Timekeeper is also promised that this vision quest — concurrent with arduous travel with his impressive and imperious newly-found dog Check to the Sacred Mountain somewhere in the north, and complemented with mescal buttons for ceremonial purposes — would gain for himself a new name, and a meeting with a great power.
The expedition ensues, the return wanders, seemingly subject to the whims of a geographical dart toss of sorts as much as narrative circumstance. Just as attention spans start to topple, though, Atkinson rivets the reader with jolts of extra adventure and thrills, such as when he details the hallucinogenic and harrowing night Timekeeper and Check spend on Sacred Mountain, replete with the angel of death and “the test to find out what I’m made of.” Another test, more of an ordeal, more real-world vivid and violent, comes when the two become witnesses of an armed gas station robbery, and then long-suffering prey of the culprits.
But for the most part, Timekeeper and his “gray might” wander in search of Chief to get Timekeeper’s life-affirming new name, now and then taking odd jobs for gas money for Timekeeper’s rattling old Buick, stolen plates and all. When unsubstantiated rumors that Chief is in Arizona send Timekeeper and Check ricocheting generally in that southwest-bound direction, in patterns dictated by what almost seems like self-imposed restraining orders, the result at times makes for return visits to been-there done-that-burg instead of, for example – and for at least a diversion and lunch — Johnnyboy/Timekeeper’s favorite aunt’s house in Utah, almost visited couple times before. At least that would’ve been toasty-warm, and given Check a chance to re-charge his might, so to speak.
These are all ways of saying, perhaps, that Atkinson’s novel is all about the destinations, not the journey. After all, Timekeeper, whenever he dies, has his own version of how to“light out for the Territory ahead”: “When I’ve become the wind, I too will play tricks on the unsuspecting traveler. Ones who are bad will be frightened, but innocent hearts will know it’s the Chief called Timekeeper.”