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I Am the Light of This World

Review

I Am the Light of This World

In his latest novel, I AM THE LIGHT OF THIS WORLD, Michael Parker asks readers to do something that some may find difficult: sympathize with a main character who has played a part in a horrible crime.

But Earl Boudreaux is much more than a man who spends the bulk of his life in a Texas prison for his inadvertent role in the 1973 murder of a teenage girl. He’s a uniquely sympathetic fictional creation --- a boy whose heartbreaking naivete leads him to make a series of small but fateful choices that have devastating consequences. Later, he’s an aging, just-released ex-con who has “spent decades thinking of himself as a horrible person” and is not sure he deserves the small slice of happiness life has granted him.

"Earl’s story is in many ways a sad one, but the distinctive voice with which Parker has imbued his character keeps I AM THE LIGHT OF THIS WORLD from descending into a chronicle of one man’s misery."

When we meet Earl, he’s a dreamy, 17-year-old loner. He spends his days hanging out in the woods near his family’s trailer and reading a biography of Lead Belly, one of his favorite musicians. (“Not a great role model,” his blunt-talking lawyer Arthur later points out.) He meets, and falls for, Tina, a troubled girl who “glow[s] with a rare pale energy.” When Tina asks him to drive her to Austin to visit her mother, who is supposedly a patient in the state mental hospital, he readily agrees.

However, the trip to Austin quickly spirals out of control. Earl falls in with a smooth-talking drug dealer named Tom, and what follows is a nightmarish orgy of sex and drugs. When Tina disappears, Earl is arrested on suspicion of her murder, though he has no memory --- at least at first --- of what happened. Tom, predictably, has vanished.

Earl is not exactly a linear thinker, and the story of what really happened to Tina emerges in a roundabout way. It’s not that he’s deliberately concealing the truth, but rather that a combination of a drug-induced haze and his free-associative way of thinking makes nailing down what really occurred a challenge. Once the full tale comes out, it’s impossible not to feel for Earl, who, like Tina, is also a victim. But that hardly matters. Somebody has to pay for Tina’s death, and the strange teenager whose own poor and broken family treats him “like creek mud” is the one who ends up holding the bill.

The second half of the story picks up 40 years later. Earl has completed his sentence. Inspired by the pictures of Seattle he saw in a book in prison, he makes his way west. On impulse, he gets off the bus in a small town in Oregon, where a retired lawyer, her librarian daughter and a shrewd swim instructor welcome him into their makeshift family. But after spending so much time locked up, Earl finds freedom overwhelming. Putting the past behind him proves impossible. Again, he finds himself buffeted by forces beyond his control, which lead to a surprising, though seemingly inevitable, conclusion.

Earl’s story is in many ways a sad one, but the distinctive voice with which Parker has imbued his character keeps I AM THE LIGHT OF THIS WORLD from descending into a chronicle of one man’s misery. His sense of wonder at the world, and his ability to see life through a lens that others do not, come through in even the smallest of moments. After he’s released from prison, Earl briefly returns to Stovall, his decaying East Texas hometown. “The center of town was dead,” he observes, and the city is surrounded by “an ugly thriving circle” of stores like Wal-Mart and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. (The latter “sounded to Earl like the title of a porno.”) The new development encircling the abandoned downtown reminds him of “how his parents used to put new appliances atop dead ones.”

A few details in the novel ring false. Earl is an odd duck, but his confusion over “the large orange president whose English wasn’t all that good” is a bit much. Surely, even prisoners must have heard of Donald Trump. Readers are also asked to believe that Earl’s childlike demeanor survived his time in what he dubs “the in-between.” There are hints of the dark things that went on during his years behind bars, but Earl emerges from decades of incarceration relatively unhardened.

The book’s ending arrives abruptly, and in some ways, it would have been interesting to linger longer in the final moments of Earl’s story. But on the other hand, the swift conclusion is fitting. If there is anything that Earl has learned in his 58 years, it’s that life can change irreversibly in the blink of an eye.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on November 23, 2022

I Am the Light of This World
by Michael Parker

  • Publication Date: November 15, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1643751794
  • ISBN-13: 9781643751795