Rows of Praise
by J.D. Reid
Genre: Literary Fiction / Metaphysical & Visionary
Print Length: 343 pages
Reviewed by Erica Ball
A loving look at how mundane moments can feel like epic adventures
Rows of Praise is the story of a long walk that becomes a momentous journey.
Nick begins his walk early in the morning after a night of sleeping rough under a tree, but instead of going straight to his appointment, he ventures through some of the key memories of his life. This is a moment of reckoning.
What should be a straightforward walk along familiar roads becomes instead a series of mental detours to people and places long past, detours that require his full attention and therefore create many pauses, breaks, and interruptions to his trek.
Nick is a charming good-looking guy who has been dealt an unfortunate hand in life in some ways, but a very lucky one in others. Generations of his family have lived intimately with mental illness and this has had devastating consequences. Yet, he is beloved by his family, friends, and many in the small town in which he has always lived.
This is a town where everyone knows everyone else’s name…and business. And they aren’t shy about putting their two cents in, but in a good way. The loving interference of these nosy well-meaning characters does a lot to keep Nick on track both in his memories and as the current day moves forward. Nick, for his part, seems as puzzled by their devotion to him as by the twists and turns of his life as he mulls them over. That he seems constantly surprised by being loved by others is endearing, and perhaps one of the most appealing things about him, though there are many others.
Many of Nick’s thoughts are dominated by the influence of Clarence, his father, a steadily good-natured man who communicates mainly through repeating his favorite stories about family or friends. Through these stories, Clarence teaches Nick many things: To lean into the best parts of life; to enjoy good food, good wine, good jokes, and the love of good friends. Clarence’s stories also make meaning of Nick’s often confusing past, to orient them both in their identities and to keep alive people that have changed or passed away. But in many ways, Clarence’s message seems to be to not take life too seriously, as very little of it makes sense anyway.
It is through remembering his father telling these stories that Nick, during his walk, works through major and often traumatic events, especially from his younger days.
But Clarence’s storytelling style also forms the basis for Nick’s self-talk, as the current narrative loops around and repeats in the same wandering way. Repetition like this in less-skilled hands may have been distracting, but instead here leads the readers’ experience into Nick’s musings with a light touch of stream-of-consciousness.
There are brief moments of confusion as Nick’s attention flashes in and out of the present moment, but these are quickly resolved as the author employs many signposts to help orient the reader, both in the form of actual signposts on the present-day roads Nick travels, as well as explicit statements of Nick’s or Clarence’s ages during memory sequences.
As such, it’s an accessible read and highly recommended for those drawn to generational stories, those featuring small towns, tight-knit communities, and plenty of humor.
In all, Rows of Praise is the story of one man’s “life-flashing-before his eyes” as he comes to terms with where he finds himself. But it is also a story about many different kinds of love and different kinds of family. It is about building a life despite—or even because of—the tragedies that occur simply as a part of living. And about how a lifetime can be re-lived in just a few momentous hours.
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