Reviewed by Juliana Converse
Ollie’s desire is multifold: his most urgent need is to find his Uncle Scotty, and ask him why Ollie is haunted by childhood memories related to him. Underneath this urge runs the very familiar, existential dread of the recently graduated. But in Ollie’s case, this includes the question of his sexuality. In Oliver’s Travels, Clifford Garstang interrogates the folly of memory and meaning through a deeply flawed, possibly traumatized, occasionally problematic main character, asking, how do we know a thing, or how do we come to accept something as known?
Oliver’s Travels is indeed about travel, including the travels Ollie should have taken; “I should have gone west, like the man said,” the novel opens. But rather than follow this romantic cliché of young adulthood, Ollie does what many young people are forced to: move back in with a parent. At first it is in Indianapolis, with his divorced father and “wounded warrior” brother, Q in the house where Ollie grew up. One day, Ollie is looking through family photographs when he becomes curious about his father’s estranged younger brother, Scotty. His father tells him Scotty is dead. His mother tells him Scotty is dead. Neither of his siblings, Q or Sally-Ann can recall what happened to him. But Ollie’s memories of his adventurous uncle, and his lack of memory of his death, point to different conclusions.
When staying with his father becomes unbearable, Ollie moves in with his mother in Virginia. Once again, he fails to go west. He admits, “I’m deficient in the courage department.” There Ollie accepts a job as an adjunct professor of English at a community college. He meets another teacher, a prim young lady wearing a cross necklace named, appropriately, Mary, whom Ollie begins half-heartedly dating. Immediately he begins projecting a version of himself that he suspects she wants: a passionate teacher, and a nice guy certain of his future.
But Ollie is anything but certain of his future. What will he do with a degree in Philosophy? He realizes he greatly misses the structure and challenge of school. He was inspired by his relationship with one professor in particular, which ended abruptly. Yet the influence of Professor Russell is clearly embedded in Ollie’s consciousness, as Ollie’s chronological narrative is interspersed with his memories of the professor’s lectures and their meditation sessions.
Meanwhile, Mary and Ollie are all wrong for each other. They disagree on nearly everything, with little crossover in interests and tastes, to a comical degree. Ollie is a wimp and Mary is a ninny. As such, their convergence only makes sense, the one too scared to leave the other, despite their obvious incompatibility. Mary, he thinks, represents things he should want: a nice, churchgoing girl who reads books (albeit not “good” ones), plays piano, sings “like a Siren,” and knows she wants to be a teacher, a wife and a mother. She has also continued living with her parents for three years after graduation, a thought that is mortifying to Ollie. But when he meets her brother, Mike, suddenly Ollie wants to spend as much time with Mary as possible. Why can he not get him out of his mind, Ollie wonders? And does it have to do with his patchy memories of Uncle Scotty?
Since cowardice and indecision render him incapable of running the trodden path of young male fortune-seekers, Ollie lives out his fantasies another way: on the page. He invents “Oliver,” an alter-ego who possesses the adventurous spirit Ollie lacks, journeying to distant lands with an “exotic” woman by his side. As Ollie develops Oliver’s character, anyone who has attended a freshman creative writing workshop will be amused to recognize the young writer trope of prosaic fantasy-fulfillment, the way a twenty year-old reveals their gushiest visions of their ideal selves, while casting love interests as props to their main character’s self-discovery. With characters’ names barely changed from their counterparts (“Oliver” and “Maria”), Ollie re-imagines himself as charming and courageous, and Mary as exciting and dangerous. It is at times agonizing (read: triggering) to watch as a scared young man wastes an ambitious young woman’s time, abusing her trust while he figures himself out. And yet Mary may have a secret or two of her own. Meanwhile, the possibility of his childhood trauma looms heavily over Ollie. We are beckoned, if not compelled, to give him a break.
Ollie’s relationship with his father is especially pertinent to his wavering confidence. Ollie was born with only four toes on each foot, a harmless expression of some genetic trait. “One of the clearest memories I have of my childhood,” Ollie recalls, “is my father’s insistence that I wear something on my feet while in his presence–socks, shoes, slippers.” When one day young Ollie compares his number of toes to his brother’s, he finally notices the discrepancy and begins to cry. “But it wasn’t the missing toes I was crying about. I had finally understood why my father hated me.” Reading Ollie as a possibly-not-heterosexual character, this strikes an especially emotional note, as he realizes his father hates him not for his choices, but for the way he was born.
As snippets of his childhood return to Ollie, he wrestles with the imperfect and erratic nature of memory and truth. If others have no memory of an event, and your own is patchy, did it happen to you at all?
Ollie and Mary have a memorable (and cringe-worthy) fight related to the nature of memory, faith, and truth. A shaken Mary confides in Ollie when a student of hers tells her she has just been sexually assaulted. In response, Ollie enters interrogation mode: “So she called the cops? Went to the hospital? No? Why the hell not?” He questions whether or not she would have reason to lie (Mary has said the student is prone to embellishment in her essays, she had an exam that day, etc). He suggests that “maybe she needs some attention.” One wishes a tug on the ear could make him shut up as he presses on. Surely no one could be so oblivious, so lacking in emotional intelligence, as to not recognize the real stakes in the conversation (i.e. his relationship with Mary).
To her credit, Mary reminds him of the emotional nuances of sexual trauma, and even introduces him to the student in person. But this backfires, as Ollie doubles down on the issue of the student not reporting her attack to the police. “If you don’t,” he warns her, “. . . eventually even you will begin to doubt that it happened. It will fade from reality and become just a bad dream.” The fight illustrates Ollie’s attitude towards his own trauma: if certain facts are not known, the event cannot be said to have taken place. And yet, based on his vague memories of his uncle, and the fact that no one in the family can say where he lives or whether he is living at all, Ollie is already convinced that: 1. His uncle is alive and 2. His uncle did something to Ollie that has bearing on why Ollie cannot know himself. He feels he knows these points inherently, what one would call faith.
Throughout the novel Ollie is in a state of questioning, seeking to illuminate truth even as he obscures it from those around him. “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. Repeat a memory, whether or not the memory is flawed, and the same thing happens.” Ollie’s reaction to Mary’s student mirrors his own, inner interrogations of his imperfect memory; his defensiveness actually having to do with the possibility that he was himself a victim of abuse. “Do I doubt Sylvia’s story because I’m uncertain about what happened to me? Am I a victim? Or have I imagined it? If it happened, why didn’t I tell someone?” Implied but not overtly explored is the question of the gender divide in terms of sexual abuse; perhaps Ollie feels there is more shame in being a man and having been abused by a male member of his family, than there is in a male-female date rape scenario.
In the last third of the novel, Ollie convinces Mary to move abroad for a couples’ adventure, his secret agenda being, of course, to track down Uncle Scotty. After awkward family engagements, travel gaffes, and a few truly lucky breaks, Ollie’s journey comes to a peak. And while the story lands safely, I can’t help but acknowledge lingering resentment for the very character I also rooted for. Ollie’s complexity is at once overstated (by himself), and also understated by his oafish actions. I was often frustrated with Mary, the put-upon girlfriend who attempts to reclaim the power imbalance with soapy manipulation tactics. Ollie’s highly serendipitous dalliances with other women on his travels, exotic beauties that appeared solely to comfort and assist him in his not-quite-Homerian quest, felt so fantastical and idealized as to suggest that he is merging with his literary alter-ego, becoming more Oliver than Ollie.
Garstang’s dry humor and tight, aphoristic writing make for an engaging, unstoppable read. The Philosophy classroom discussions frame and inform the narrative, and provide context for Ollie’s actions. The author’s close attention to structure and tone support the reader’s emotional journey, and enables him to balance the richness of Ollie’s interior monologues with those facepalm dialogues. Ollie’s eventual discovery of the truth arrives padded with tenderness, yet the impact resounds. We are not so much left with questions as we are rewarded for the search. Oliver’s Travels was indeed transporting, challenging, and provocative, drawing me in as the mystery unfolded.
Clifford Garstang (Korea 1976-77) is the author, among other books, of the novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, winner of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, and the short story collection In an Uncharted Country. He is also the editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, a three-volume anthology of stories set around the world. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea and an international lawyer, Garstang lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virgini