Howard's ex-girlfriend Sylvia heads for rehab. She assumes that Howard will care for nine-year-old Ryan, even though Howard and Ryan have never had more than a neutral relationship. After all, steady, loyal Howard has always been happy to come to Sylvia's rescue.
Due to a war injury to his brain thirty years ago, Howard can't speak except in rare, short bursts of unintelligible sounds. For the most part, he's unable to read or write, and suffers phantom sensations and numbness. But his moods are stable, his job as yardman at a convent allows him to be home a good deal of the time, and he owns a large house --- so caring for a kid isn't within the realm of impossibility.
Laurel, one of Howard's housemates, lives rent-free in exchange for helping Howard with paperwork. She expresses concern that Ryan will expect her to act as a surrogate mom, but Howard wordlessly reassures her that he'll care for the boy. The burgeoning relationship between man and boy, however, takes off in difficult starts and stalls.
Howard lives in the house he grew up in among memories and souvenirs of his childhood. Before Ryan joined him his life was frozen in many ways; he spent his time revisiting his past while ignoring his present and future. His connection with Ryan eventually enables him to move forward. Simultaneously, the boy's presence subtly knits the disparate group of housemates into a family. Laurel, in spite of her protestations, slides easily into a maternal role. The two jock-type renters Howard scornfully dubs "Nit" and "Nat" turn out to be guys capable of surprising tenderness. As the adults come to care for Ryan, they also begin to connect meaningfully with one another.
Howard's memories of his sixteen days in Vietnam, his sorrowful return home, and earlier happy days with his parents and with Sylvia weave throughout the plot. That backstory, plus Howard's articulate ruminations, make him truly come alive. There's a poignant yearning in Howard as he fantasizes about the life he could have had if he'd never been injured. Sylvia, drug habit and all, has always been the love of his life. He can't help picturing himself as her partner, parenting their treasured son, Ryan, together.
The storyline, while something we've seen before, is transformed into quiet yet dazzling originality through quirky, believable characters and an exquisite author's voice. Although intense joy suffuses the story at times, this is far from an easy feel-good story; inevitable hard times do occur. While it's painful to accompany Howard as he spirals down into darkness, first-time novelist Dave King leaves the reader satisfied and delicately hopeful. I absolutely loved this leisurely and intelligent tale, and highly recommend it.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 22, 2011