(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This rambling story of the education, exploits, and apotheosis of an adolescent hero is built on the framework of traditional quest fiction. It also contains elements of tall tale and fairy tale, science fiction and fantasy, and, as suggested by the “potboiler” of the subtitle, popular adventure. Stone Junction is vividly imagined, rich in incident and character, full of intriguing, offbeat information. More problematic are its moral assumptions, structure, and tone: the degree to which it comes together to form a satisfying whole.

Heroes of myth and legend typically are born under extraordinary circumstances, their births attended by portents, and Daniel Pearse is no exception. His sixteen-year-old mother, Annalee, is a ward of a Catholic home for girls in Iowa; shortly before his birth, she breaks a nun’s jaw with a single roundhouse punch, then escapes with her new baby and heads west. Daniel’s father, never known to him, is any one of seven men. The traditional hero’s mysterious paternity is thus presented here in contemporary dress, suggesting something of the rootlessness and ambivalence of purpose which pervade the novel.

In quest and in fairy tale, the hero is assisted, tested, and sometimes tempted from his true path by strangers he encounters along the way. In Stone Junction, such strangers make up the majority of the characters. The first of these is “Smiling Jack” Ebbetts, the Singing Truck Driver, a free spirit who travels around the country entertaining in bars and nightclubs and who gives a ride to the hitchhiking Annalee and her baby. Smiling Jack offers them an isolated cabin he owns 150 miles north of San Francisco, and there they settle for the next several years. When Smiling Jack returns, he offers Annalee a business deal: to run the place as a safe house for people in hiding from the authorities. She assumes he means criminals—and is about to agree anyway—but he tells her they are outlaws and that there is a vital distinction:

“Outlaws only do wrong when they feel it’s right; criminals only feel right when they’re doing wrong.” The novel, then, centers on the lives of outlaws, so defined, and treats them simply and unambiguously as good; the equally straightforward evil against which they are pitted consists almost entirely of law enforcement agencies and the federal government.

A young outlaw-in-training naturally would not be enrolled in a public school, which, according to Smiling Jack, teaches nothing “but how to get along with other kids under completely weird conditions” (and, though this is not spelled out, reinforces traditional values). Annalee teaches Daniel to read, and together they investigate such subjects of mutual interest as astronomy, meteorology, and botany. His education goes far beyond conventional home schooling, however: He studies penmanship with “a forger of considerable renown,” “the delicate arts of subversion and sabotage” with “a revolutionary witch,” and so on. Under this regimen, Daniel blooms; the cabin, with its parade of wise and kindhearted outlaws, is his Eden.

What brings this idyllic way of life to an end is, strikingly enough, Annalee’s falling in love: as if to suggest that stable happiness is possible only at the cost of emotional distance, an idea reinforced by the consequences, much later, of Daniel’s own brief romance. Annalee’s love is Shamus Malloy, “a professional smuggler, an alchemical metallurgist, a revolutionary thief” who had recently attempted to steal uranium with a view to blackmailing the government into giving up nuclear power. With the authorities close behind, they flee Daniel’s Eden. The fugitives are now aided by a shadowy, loose-knit organization that comes to play a central role. AMO, standing variously for Alliance of Magicians and Outlaws or Alchemists, Magicians, and Outlaws, is “a historical alliance of the mildly felonious, misfits, anarchists, shamans, earth mystics, gypsies, magicians, mad scientists, dreamers, and other socially marginal souls.” It is, in effect, an intensely romantic wish-fulfillment fantasy, a home and a source of power for (in society’s restrictively conventional view) perpetual children.

Daniel’s own childhood ends suddenly when his mother, planting a diversionary

bomb in aid of another attempt to steal plutonium, is blown up; he himself, struck by

a sliver of metal, spends nine weeks in a coma. He wakes in the presence of “Volta,”

a high-ranking member of AMO and a master magician who learned (though he

fears to try it now, lest he be unable to return) to dematerialize his body: literally to

vanish. Volta consigns him to the care of AMO.

The warning Annalee shouted to Daniel just before she died suggests that the bomb was sabotaged and his mother murdered; the purpose of the education he now receives,...

(The entire section is 1987 words.)