I received an Advance Reader’s Edition of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own. The Escapist has a release date of January 28, 2020.
Billy Chute is a young man in his early twenties who has recently left behind his home and job and taken to the road with his beat-up car, a sleeping bag, and a cooler full of pills. He is, ostensibly, looking for his missing father but, as we quickly come to realize, he’s equally running away from himself.
Before Billy left his last place of work, someone told him that he should write his thoughts down. So the action of the novel is spliced with entries from Billy’s journal, written in the second person. Here we begin to understand the level of abuse and abandonment that have characterized Billy’s existence his whole life. The journal increases in importance as Billy’s story progresses, almost taking on the status of another character.
Billy’s search for his father takes him first to his own family – his uncle, his grandmother, his brother – and we see the levels of disconnect that exist in this clan. As Billy travels further we witness him become more adrift and his reliance on drugs, apparent from the beginning of the novel, seems to become increasingly unhinged. Billy isn’t just your average twenty-something stoner, he has elaborate plans for his drugs, complicated dosages that he works out on post-it notes (the book includes images of his post-its and chemical compounds which is kind of an interesting touch). Billy is a clear victim of the 21st century American opioid crisis. He’s been overprescribed his entire life and, as he says himself, he’s never truly been clean. He’s both a victim and a perpetrator in his own life.
Billy is not a likeable character. But he isn’t supposed to be. I never could quite make myself root for him and he continues to make bad decisions throughout the book. But Puretz writes him in painful realism and the action of the novel is so consistent that I kept reading because I wanted to find out what happened next. The road trip format means that we follow Billy through several American cities and offers a glimpse of everything from the War on Drugs in the US to the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York to the end of the Iraq War and its effects on veterans.
This is Puretz’s first novel and it shows a few flaws; I was satisfied with the ending, which leaves Billy’s story open, but there were still a few loose ends, including characters who probably could have been left out entirely. Characters seem to dip in and then completely out of Billy’s life without any warning. And there’s an overly long description of a stranger in a restaurant eating pizza. All told though, this is a strong debut and Puretz clearly has an interesting take on modern American society.