Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
The social conflicts that Harley Altmyer endures and attempts to understand are inextricably woven into the themes of Back Roads , so that it is impossible to separate them neatly, and Harley bemoans those English teachers who take the pleasure out of books by "breaking them down into themes and...
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The social conflicts that Harley Altmyer endures and attempts to understand are inextricably woven into the themes of Back Roads, so that it is impossible to separate them neatly, and Harley bemoans those English teachers who take the pleasure out of books by "breaking them down into themes and sentence structure." However, the best novels do have important themes, and this one is so well written that its pleasures are indestructible. By definition, the most vital theme of any bildungsroman is the process of, and the necessity for, maturity. Harley's progress can be summed up by two especially riveting scenes: the one in which he seeks and accepts the help of Betty, his first counselor, and the one in which he confronts the authorities after he is arrested. No longer does he fantasize that he is capable of complete independence; he allows his counselor to take him into her home and comfort him because he knows he needs her and that she is good at her job. At the jail, when the sheriff makes a snide remark about Callie, Harley yells for him to shut up, knowing that this outburst will bring even more physical abuse from the deputies. A bit earlier when Harley is talking to his uncle Mike on the phone from jail and Mike asks incredulously if Harley is sure that he wants to use his only phone call to talk to his sister Jody, a six-year-old girl, Harley simply and assertively says, "Right." He has grown up a lot, not completely, not without scars, and not without severe damage, but by the end of the novel, he is very nearly an adult, and he can accept both help and responsibility.
He is also no longer a teenager. At the conclusion of the story, Harley is twenty years old, having "celebrated" his birthday by having a few beers and hiding his uncle's rifle. Harley has come to realize that the rifle, which was used to kill his father, is more of a danger to the family than an instrument of protection.
Another important theme is the pull of family, the primeval drive to react emotionally to one's parents and siblings, even when those reactions can be tremendously, irreversibly destructive, as in the case of incest, which figures prominently in Back Roads. A subtheme here is parental responsibility versus the selfish, id-driven desire for pure pleasure and the need to vent one's anger. Harley's father has abused his family, and this abuse has led to his murder. Harley feels compelled to provide for and to protect his family, yet he also has the strong and often self-centered sexual desires of any normal adolescent, desires that pull him away from his family and into the adult world of sensuality. Callie, who has an affair with him, feels both a strong obligation to her family and the powerful desire to satisfy her sexual needs with a younger, more virile man. These contending forces lead to ecstatic pleasure and shocking violence.
Perhaps the largest, most overarching theme is the self against society. The young feel injustice more strongly because it is new to them; adults must become somewhat jaded in order to survive and be happy. Harley is stung by every arrow of misfortune, and there is usually someone, often an adult authority figure, to blame. Of course, what he is beginning to realize as the novel closes is that he himself has made the choices that have led him to where he is, and that he is the one who can provide the hope that he needs to become whole again. No one is perfect, least of all those in Harley's deeply dysfunctional family, and no one is always honest, but everyone is human and is individual. This humanity and uniqueness is occasionally at odds with a society that seems determined to preserve order even at the cost of justice. When Harley protests to various legal authorities that he knows his mother is innocent, they simply tell him that, innocent or not, she has been convicted, and the case is closed.
By the end of the story, Harley has come a long way toward, accepting society the way it is: "This place is not so bad," he says, specifically referring to the institution in which he resides but generally perhaps speaking of the world. His illusions that happiness is simply a matter of taking care of your family and being in control, and that good sex is virtually the same thing as love are replaced by the realities that hardly anyone is completely in control, that no one always pleases his or her family, and that the passion involved in sex can veer suddenly into hatred and death just as easily as it can lead to love and fulfillment. Thus, one sees that the common theme of illusion versus reality is also prevalent, as is natural when the protagonist is youthful and has a vibrant imagination. Harley is often stunned by the wide variance between what he expects and what actually happens, and between what he perceives and what really exists.