Likely Stories - American Road Trip by Patrick Flores-Scott
War is hell. And what comes after war, when soldiers return home, is often its own version of torment, one that takes exceptional patience and grace from everyone--those who love the soldiers as well as the soldiers themselves.
There's no getting back to normal. There may not even be a new normal. There's just life and a need to move forward as best we can. That is the point Patrick Flores-Scott drives home in his 2018 novel American Road Trip.
We see the story unfold from the perspective of Teodoro Avila, known as T. The book opens at of high school the start of T's junior year of high school, and it's somewhere around 2009. T and his best friend, Caleb, are better gamers than they are students. The last few years have clearly been a hard time for T and his family. His older brother Manny joined the military immediately after graduating high school instead of going to college, something he started planning in the wake of 9-11 and was sent to Iraq after basic training. Not long after Manny joined up, T and his parents moved from a solid little house Des Moines (Washington, not lowa) to a much bigger place and then to a smaller, shabbier one in SeaTac in 2008, after the housing bubble popped, the economy tanked, and T's parents lost their union jobs. Manny's tours of duty kept getting extended, T's mom blamed his dad for Manny joining in the first place, his oldest sibling, sister Xochitl was trying to make it as a singer but felt like she needed to help hold the family together--stress after stress after stress, and everyone just wanted things to go back to normal.
So when Manny finally comes home in the spring of T's junior year, that's exactly what everyone thinks--hopes--is going to happen. T has gotten his act together a bit by then. He's crushing on Wendy, a girl he knew back in the day, and it seems she likes him, too (she calls him Teodoro). He's improving his grades, slowly but surely and after some setbacks, eventually turning things around enough to make college start to feel like a goal instead of a dream. Big brother Manny coming home is going to be the icing on the cake. During their first meal together-green chile cheeseburgers, Manny's favorite-T thinks "he seems so happy it's hard to imagine he just got back from a war...I'm seeing how we look and hearing how we sound, counting us and thinking 'finally, this is us.’
Except it isn't. Because war is hell and men don't have mental health issues and while the country can find the money to send soldiers to fight it doesn't always dig as deep to fix the wounds you cannot see. Everyone wants everything to be fine, but soon everyone can tell that it's clearly not. The tagline of the book is 'where do you go when the war comes home?’.
Manny is struggling in a big way, and T starts to believe maybe the best thing, the only thing, is to save himself and his future, and move in with Caleb---stress after stress after stress. When Xochitl tries to convince T to come back home, he thinks "whoever made up the phrase 'do the right thing' must have had a simple life." And he stays put.
T makes it to the end of junior year and has plans for the summer. He is not going to go back home. He will keep studying and working with a tutor so that his senior year grades reflect the big changes he's made and that he's ready for college. He hopes to deepen his relationship with Wendy. And he's going to work and earn money for senior pictures, college applications, and, very importantly now that he has a girlfriend, prom.
Xochitl, however, has stayed home with Manny and their parents and has other plans. The title of the book gives you a pretty good hint about her solution to their problems (it involves exactly the kind of car you expect, several "accidental" wrong turns, lots of reminiscing, a few truly harrowing scenes, and several more descriptions of food that had me checking whether it was time to eat yet), but you'll have to read the book to find out exactly what happens. Where do you go when the war comes home? Nothing is easy for our heroes. But,because there was so much love there, they never really, truly lost hope. Or each other.
I think that was my favorite thing about the book. Flores-Scott did a wonderful job of helping me of but you can judge for yourself understand and empathize with every character (except maybe Frank) even though I was only looking through T's eyes. I rode the ups and downs, got angry and sad and laughed out loud At one point in the trip, when T is mostly resigned but still a little resentful and resistant at being taken on this journey, Xochitl sings "Tengo un pobre corazón/Que a veces se rompió" and that's true for us all -- our poor hearts will sometimes break The book, like life, doesn't end with everything wrapped up in a neat bow, with normality achieved (whatever that means) and everyone living happily ever after. But I could see it on the horizon, and that gives me hope for us all.