Randall DeVallance. The Absent Traveler: A Novella and Other Stories. Kensington, Md.: Atticus Books, 2010. Short fiction. 186 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9845105-2-8.
Charles Lime, the protagonist of The Absent Traveler, is a Bartleby for our age. Instead of working for a lawyer on Wall Street, he’s employed by a big box store in a Western Pennsylvania strip mall. Rather than copying legal texts, he rings up electronics. He doesn’t live in an ill-lit corner of his office but rents an equally pathetic space in an unrenovated basement. A 26-year-old college grad who prefers not to have any ambitions beyond head cashier, Charles baffles his peers, enrages his father, saddens his mother, frustrates his manager, and washes over the collegiate coworkers who pass through his workplace en route to different cities and better jobs.
The Absent Traveler, its protagonist, and his “absence” are curiously compelling. Written in third person, though largely from Charles Lime’s point of view, the story offers a window into Charles’ thoughts. But none of what goes through Charles’ mind serves as easy explanation for his scant motivation, and little of his interior bonds us to him in comfortable sympathy. Meanwhile, we learn that Charles has a penchant for daydreaming and a fetish for travel literature. Charles prefers not to travel far in physical reality (he resides a short walk from work and a short drive from his childhood home), but has a strong instinct to escape: When he picks up a book, the dingy walls of the basement fade away. The insults of his father, a young woman’s rejection, his predatory alcoholic landlady: all recede to a safe distance when Charles is in the throes of an overseas tale. As his latest travel book becomes more and more a part of the novella’s text, it slowly reveals the deeply seductive nature of Charles’ will to elude reality--the darker (even destructive) side of his extreme inertia in real life.
Interestingly, author Randall DeVallance, who traveled with the Peace Corps to Bulgaria, has eschewed the instinct to create a traditional travel memoir: the narrative of the “authentic” exotic experience. Instead he weaves his Eastern European memories into the travel tale which draws Charles Lime in so fully, it leaves him absent to his own daily life. Preferring daydreams and alternative futures to actualities, The Absent Traveler sneaks up on us as a dark fable for the age of the internet: In a time when increasing numbers of us spend increasing hours interacting with a pixelated virtual reality, what transpires in the physical lives we're no longer acknowledging? Charles Lime is an anti-hero who makes a virtue of flying under the radar, but whose story won’t easily be forgotten.
Recommended for collections of contemporary fiction, small press fiction, short fiction, and Western Pennsylvania authors.