Go West, Young Man 

'Careless Love' tells the story of a 19th-century Bostonian who travels to New Mexico in search of himself.

Thomas Hall has issues. Caught in a life of quiet desperation, Thomas vacillates between hero and tragedian, savior and scalawag--never quite sure whether his ever-changing role calls for Oedipus or Hamlet, Macbeth or Iago, Horatio Alger or Ayn Rand's Howard Roark.

His quest, however, remains the same. A 19th-century Bostonian in search of his past in the burgeoning future of the West, it is his seemingly endless moral journey--so steeped in anomie--that makes up the pages of Kate Horsley's Careless Love: Or the Land of Promise.

Historical fiction and conceivably a modern-day Greek/Shakespearean parable, Careless Love follows the travails of young Thomas. Having changed her married name from O'Hallahan to Hall after her Irish husband deserted her, Thomas' mother always told the then-innocent tyke his French-English father died in the Civil War--an impossibility, as Thomas would come to discover, since he was born two years after the war ended.

Like Gertrude, whose beauty is only surpassed by her tunnel vision of reality, his mother remarries a yellow-teethed lawyer, sending Thomas into a melancholy even darker than the Dane's. Thomas, too, becomes a deserter--leaving his mother and his lowbrow job with The Boston Globe--as he sets off on the rails toward Virginia City after an abandoned suicide attempt and a round of fisticuffs with his best friend, Wallace.

And so his passage into mediocrity begins, from a boy with hopes and expectations of becoming a Harvard-trained doctor or lawyer to disingenuous young man with the wanderlust and womanizing of Kerouac but lacking all the talent.

A series of negligible adventures make up the meat of Careless Love--and eventually forge the mettle of its protagonist--as Thomas beds a young workingwoman on the train with hollow promises to marry her; clings to a lively troupe of traveling actors, claiming to be The Globe's theater critic; witnesses several gun-toting businessmen hunt down cattle and an Indian from the window of the moving vehicle, only later to vacantly wish he had done anything to rescue the innocent man; and eventually discards them all for New Mexico and an unexceptional job gathering names for the society page of The Daily Citizen.

Thomas is anything but likeable, relentlessly changing his story about who he is and what his intentions are, like a chameleon caught on gingham. "I feel that I am wanting to leave wherever I am," he says, perhaps because he is always "coming across as the very thing he feared, hated, despised the most--someone who didn't have a firm hold on himself."

Set against the dusty backdrop of Albuquerque in the 1880s, Horsley may have deliberately debilitated her leading actor, like some bizarre alchemy of Richard III and Hamlet or Iago and Howard Roark--someone who despises mediocrity but is unable to rise above it. In the end, he could very well be any of us and we him.

Falling in and out of love at breakneck speeds and distressing whether his clothing exposes the real truth behind his interminably changing personas, Thomas truly is "a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage," buying what everyone is selling and believing others buy his lies as well. Because, as he reminds himself, "when one told the truth, one often risked losing affection."

The moral of Thomas' moral journey is that, deluded into thinking he was seeking a future, he really is in search "of the past, of a thing already experienced and therefore more reliable, more real than a proposed paradise."

And so he must go back, regressing into a friendship with a 13-year-old girl and returning from the West so that he might finally "take on a part and see it through sincerely."

As a twisted coming-of-age story with a ne'er-do-well who desires "an oasis of order in the chaos of the territory," Careless Love is an evocative read--it's just not a rompingly joyful one. Its monotony, though well-suited to Horsley's task at hand, drags at times like the repetition of train travel, and one is left ambivalent when the author oddly switches from prose to play form in two of the 29 chapters.

Regardless, Horsley's capable talents do justice to Thomas' "monstrously difficult birth"--as English critic Sir Frank Kermode wrote of King Lear--and Careless Love adeptly demonstrates "how easily a man is changed by circumstances and landscape."

More by Leigh Rich

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