Mark Cloud, whom we first met as an eight-year-old in Brad Whittington's debut novel, WELCOME TO FRED, is all grown up now and on the other side of one of those truly life-changing experiences: the death of his pastor-father. As he sits in his father's study, memories of his own college years begin to surface. One year in particular captures his attention --- the year "the wheels came off."
It starts out as the year Mark had long anticipated, and not just out of the usual excitement about college. He is leaving home, and leaving Fred, Texas, where he always and forever would be known as the preacher's kid. College, he believes, will provide him with a level of anonymity he has never known and an opportunity to become his own person, apart from his family, apart from his church, apart from his hometown.
With his first taste of freedom, Mark becomes integrated into the lives of his suite-mates and their relentless penchant for playing practical jokes on each other and the rest of the campus. (This really got annoying after a while, especially when the pranks spilled over into the wedding night of two of the characters, but Whittington thankfully provided enough genuinely interesting and intelligent plot and character development to compensate for this overkill.) And he finds true love, in the form of a far more sensible student named Lori; compared to some of his guy friends, she is a whole lot more likable as well.
But then, the wheels. Things begin to fall apart when Mark is charged with drug possession, though he had no idea the friend he was riding with had drugs in the trunk of his car. That forces a major change in his life, a change that is followed by the greatest loss in his life to that point. Mad at God --- let's change that to furious at God --- hippie-looking Mark hits the road in search of a childhood friend. In the process, he finds much, much more.
Whittington's fans are likely to find ESCAPE FROM FRED every bit as delightful as the other novels in this three-book series about Mark. Newcomers, though, are likely to have more than a few "Huh?" moments, because there are numerous references to incidents, people and concepts mentioned in the previous two books that are never explained in this one. Though I had read and reviewed the first book, I also experienced quite a few puzzled moments since I had not read the second book in the series. Each time, my attention was distracted from the story, and that's never good.
Whittington does so many things right. He's great at dialogue, characterization, keeping the reader's interest, and those all-important technical elements of a novel. And he manages to weave in a good bit of soul-searching, Bible-questioning, and faith-doubting without feeling compelled to have God swoop in and make everything right in the twinkling of an eye. Everything wraps up nicely at the end, without it feeling contrived or unrealistic. Still, I can't help feeling that new readers of Whittington's novels are going to have quite the bewildering experience with this one.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on January 15, 2006