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Titles similar to We'll Fly Away
We know from the beginning of Bliss’ latest novel that things won’t end well for the characters: the opening pages are the first of many letters Luke writes from death row to his friend Toby. Between letters, Bliss recounts the teens’ last year of high school—Luke is trying to cut weight in advance of the state wrestling championships, Toby tries to keep his abusive father at a distance, and despite their long-standing friendship, Luke and Toby’s usually reliable bond is starting to crack.
For almost all their 18 years, they’ve relied on each other for safety. Both come from precarious homes, and their dead-end North Carolina town isn’t doing them any favors. Luke bears the brunt of responsibility for his two young brothers and his neglectful mother, who struggles to keep food in the fridge, while Toby’s hair-trigger father, a small-time criminal who uses smarmy charm to his advantage, lashes out in violence.
Thankfully, Luke has channeled his simmering, powerful anger into expert discipline on the wrestling mat, so much so that he has a scholarship to college. If he can just figure out how to take Toby along to Iowa, they’ll be home free. But Toby is growing weary of Luke micromanaging his choices, and he’s starting to think Luke’s plan is half-baked. When Toby starts falling for Lily, a woman Luke thinks is bad news, it might be the final straw for their friendship, especially since Lily inadvertently pulls Toby ever closer to his father’s risky orbit.
Bliss uses spare, tight language when writing Luke and Toby’s story—we get a sense of the hard corners of their lives and tiny glimpses of their past, but he noticeably doesn’t spend much time dwelling on their emotions, and neither do the characters. Luke and Toby’s conversations dance around the tough stuff, and more often than not, they ultimately land on glib sarcasm or classic high-school vulgarities, anything they can do to avoid the things they’re afraid of.
Luke’s letters, on the other hand, are spilling over with feeling—about Toby; his own guilt; the efforts of court-appointed lawyers, clergy, and other inmates who try (often fruitlessly) to get him to latch on to a modicum of hope; how the very structure of the correctional system serves to sap inmates of their humanity—and that’s a sharp contrast to his day-to-day life. “I can’t open up or tell anybody how I’m feeling or what scares me . . . The only way to live in here is to be completely walled off, to live solely on the inside. That way nobody can take anything from you ever again.” It’s not until he starts writing letters to Toby that he seems to grasp the enormity of his situation and finally reflects on the events of their senior year with an unclouded eye.
Bliss is tackling a heavy topic here, but he keeps the story focused so tightly on the characters that the novel never gets purposeful or preachy. We recognize the injustice of Luke’s circumstances, but we don’t need statistics or ethical philosophy to get there. Rather, we recognize that injustice by way of compassion and empathy, by seeing Luke for what he is—not a remorseless criminal, but a vividly rendered, multifaceted human besieged by bad choices and a deck stacked against him. With this novel, Bliss isn’t asking whether Luke deserves his sentence or whether his actions were justified. Instead, he’s quietly and insistently showing us a complex, deeply human and deeply flawed character, and in so doing, he asks whether we can honestly regard the life of a death-row inmate as worthless. The answer is a resolute no.
Bliss excels at this kind of storytelling, the sort that zeros in on a character and offers a full, vibrant picture of his or her circumstances and choices. Those choices might not always make sense, or they might be driven by fear or jealousy, but he instills so much raw humanity in his characters that it’s almost impossible not to empathize. It might seem like We’ll Fly Away is a book with an anti–death penalty message, and while that’s certainly true in part, its larger agenda—maybe even the larger goal of Bliss’ writing in general—is to dare his readers not only to see the depths of human complexity, but to care.
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