Dan makes that mission statement as he ponders the surefire business plan that propels “Two Small Birds”: Dump his lousy low-wage jobs, abandon pursuit of a useless English writing degree at a branch campus — and become a cross-country truck driver. “We save your salary,” pitches his older, necktie-wearing but still exploited brother, John, who got the idea from a late-night TV commercial. “After a year, we get out of this day-to-day grind. We start our own business. …It’s a great idea. Tell me it’s not a great idea.”
It’s Pittsburgh in the late 1980s. Your dad’s job vanished with the closing of the Westmoreland County Volkswagen plant. No one else but the rich kids you happen to meet seem to have any chance, and your literary impulses are belittled by everyone, even yourself. The idea of driving a truck nonstop in order to launch a business selling some special kind of wire that your loyal brother promises will be the path to self-sufficiency — it’s a no-brainer.
It’s also a good premise for a picaresque novel, to use a term that Dan might have learned in his English classes, if he didn’t come late so often. Yet as the miles pile up as he delivers chicken feed to New Mexico and flour to Arkansas and brass pipe to Idaho, Dan manages to self-educate: He purchases the entire works of Hemingway at a B. Dalton in a mall, and takes Hemingway’s advice and dives into “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Then Pablo Neruda. Walt Whitman. Carl Sandburg. Paul Bowles. Henry Thoreau. The Chinese poet Li Po, whom he reads “waiting on freight,” and it makes “everything OK because I wasn’t reading Li Po to make money, to get a job, to pass a test. I’d read Li Po because I loved Li Po and I’d get loaded with freight because that was my job.”
But like a lot of smart people, Dan Charles does a lot of stupid things. He lets a woman drive him crazy, for one.
Becca is a private-college girl who mooches fast food meals off Danny when he’s broke. They drink too much together and perform tawdry, loveless sex acts from time to time, and Dan calls her incessantly from pay phones all across these United States, often only to hang up. Their tortured relationship fails to generate much literary heat, however, and brings out the least attractive parts of Dave Newman’s forays into class warfare. Our hero, the noble working stiff, is much more literate than this indulged rich kid, whose character gets tagged with the ultimate put-down: She considers “The Prophet” by Khalil Gibran “a book of great depth and beauty.” When she gushes over Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” we learn that Dan “hates everything” about Frost, calling his canonical work “an obnoxious little brag about courage and greatness and a rugged individualism that never existed.”
In one of the novel’s more revealing passages, Dan declares that “ ‘The Road Everyone Has to Take Because Not Everyone Comes of Age in a Century Overflowing with Resources’ was the poem I wanted to read and write. It was the poem I lived. I traveled on the same road that millions of different truck drivers drove every year. No one gave a shit about us and Robert Frost never wrote us in his poems.”
While literature born out of grand indignation can be compelling, self-pitying grievance does not carry the day.
But as in most fiction that verges on memoir (the bio announces that Mr. Newman was once a truck driver, and he is shown in nice necktie, holding a beer aloft), the author gets to have it both ways: The main character gets to spout nonsense and exhibit behavior that the scribe can always deny. I would hate to think that Dave Newman, as a truck driver, really ate the mountains of exclusively awful American food that Dan ingests throughout his year on the road. Yet I especially liked the touch when Dan “peeled off the lettuce and tomato” from a cheeseburger. The only fruit and vegetables mentioned in the book are there to be banished.
In the proteins department, “Two Small Birds” is more of a feast. The no-nonsense prose, which shows the influence of that Hemingway fellow as well as Raymond Carver (and, alas, Charles Bukowski), is as well-constructed as a union-made machine. The novel’s solid structure corrals potentially wayward episodes and epiphanies. It gives nothing away to say that the brothers’ business plan collapses after an act of exuberant drunken stupidity. The failure is described, not just foreshadowed, on page 78. It’s a testament to Dave Newman’s skill as a storyteller that you want to figure out how they got there, and that an element of surprise remains in the final telling of the undoing.
“Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children” picks up the life of Dan Charles, family man and underemployed adjunct teacher of writing at what sure looks like the University of Pittsburgh English Department, around 2010. (Guidepost: Ben Roethlisberger’s sex scandal in Georgia is a conversational topic.)
At the risk of sounding like the author’s press agent, the two novels complete each other. The manic questing of “Two Small Birds” finds a parallel in the domestic stress of “Raymond Carver,” as Dan clamors to provide for his well-adjusted kids, while his excellent teacher wife does more than her share of bread-winning and tolerates his drunken exploits and their shambolic friends. This novel is both more Pittsburgh-specific — how many recent books immortalize both Tessaro’s and the Cricket Lounge? — and more universal as a love song to being a good parent and spouse (despite a sleazy opportunistic fling, dispatched with quickly at the opening).
In “Two Small Birds,” as the young Dan is reading his way through Hemingway, somewhere in the middle of America, he realizes that “Hemingway knew what I was going through. …He knew that life was a battle and you needed courage. He knew that courage would sometimes fail you too.” Dan ponders the fate of smuggler Harry Morgan in “To Have and Have Not,” shot dead after getting in with the wrong people. “All I wanted was to make a living too, make a living and have a little dignity. Then write about it.” Spoken like a true working man.