One of the jarring results of the coronavirus pandemic is that it’s forcing us to confront our mortality. “The Home Stretch” doesn’t focus on the pandemic but it grapples with the psyche-haunting inevitability that everyone dies. Consider yourself forewarned.
The novel’s author, Wayne M. Johnston, of Fidalgo Island, Washington, said the story developed out of an essay he wrote about the Vietnam War and forgiveness.
Johnston also incorporates challenges that are inspired by his occupations; he was a tugboat engineer for a couple of decades and later spent several years as a classroom teacher.
That’s an identical professional profile for the novel’s protagonist, Bill Smith. The novel includes some harrowing scenes as Bill navigates gale winds and high seas aboard a tugboat, making for excellent white-knuckle reading.
But “The Home Stretch” also contains metaphorically stormy seas that go back to Bill’s childhood. His parents are strictly religious and commit to building a self-sustaining, communal evangelical mission from scratch when he is very young. As a kid, Bill lives in half-built houses, helps with farm chores and attends the community’s parochial school.
In mid-childhood, Bill grows fat. This is probably related to an undiagnosed medical condition, but Bill’s dad is a harsh taskmaster, and he associates his son’s obesity with sloth. Bill craves his father’s approval. When he doesn’t get it, that leads to self-loathing until eventually, when his dad’s criticisms become too much to bear, Bill rebels.
The untethered confusion and misery lead him to contemplate suicide. He struggles beyond that moment and enters young adulthood.
He’s rejected for compulsory military service due to a medical condition, marries young, divorces, goes to college and marries again.
His mother dies of cancer and his dad remarries too soon afterwards.
Bill himself is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
His dad begins the long descent into Alzheimer’s disease. Bill and his siblings struggle to care for him.
The narrative of “The Home Stretch” is told in patches that shift forward and backward in time. Resentment and forgiveness tussle for primacy as pungent memories wind through current moments of reckoning.
During one long stretch in the novel, all dialogue between characters vanishes and the pages read like an introspective journal as Bill muddles through one adversity piled on top of another.
“Life has been a flirtation with oblivion, testing whether it was worth the effort,” one passage offers.
But in fact, the calamities that befall Bill aren’t an atypical litany. These are the sorts of things that befall any adult moving through midlife in the modern world.
And even while all of that happens, there are moments of love, beauty and kindness. Some of them are crystalline but most of them are more subtly enmeshed in the fabric of daily life.
“The Home Stretch” is ambitious but not always successful; therapeutic, but uneven.