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.”