The tonality of The Last Professional, the new book by author Ed Davis, can be best summarized via the following passage. “Until the rails arrived virtually at their doorsteps, most people lived within a day’s walk of where they were born,” he writes in the book’s first chapter. “America was smaller. Horizons meant something.
The span of a life was measured out in strides. A desire for more, a restlessness of the soul, always lay in wait.” He goes on to elaborate, “It was a gnawing in the gut that comfort would abate for most, and conformity could subdue for others. Yet, in the hearts of some, the compulsion to wander was so irresistible that they had no choice but to follow. On horseback, on a raft, or on the last of their shoe leather, they would eventually leave everything they knew, seek solace in movement, and go in search of themselves. These pilgrims, who longed for a different path, found that a river of steel had burst to life at their feet.
Surging from the midst of the sprawling cities to the smallest hamlets, its tributaries traversed defiant mountain ranges, spanned impossibly vast prairies, and linked the remotest reaches of the country as they had never been linked before.”
So begins a story that is as rich for its vivid description, as it is for its ambiguous and evocative characterizations. The story itself concerns the exploits and adventures (sometimes, misadventures) of two transients, aptly named Lynden Hoover and The Duke respectively. The two form an odd but strong bond as they navigate their way through life, literally speaking, on the tracks. Blending key ingredients arguably belonging in Southern Gothic fiction (think a Flannery O’Connor), a dystopian thriller (books like The Road or John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids), a crime drama (Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs), and a sort of gritty, generalized literature piece like The Devil All The Time, The Last Professional is unsettlingly unpredictable.
Because of the wild twists and turns Davis takes the reader on, there’s never a sense the audience is ever in control. Rather, the experience of reading Last Professional is somewhat similar to riding an old-school rollercoaster. You don’t have an enormous amount of say about where it’s going to go. There’s not a whole lot of references the narrative conjures up. It’s the antithesis of cliché, the kind of story that feels like its inspirational roots are as much grounded in a storyteller’s unique imaginative qualities, as it is in someone’s lived experience. No passage better epitomizes this than the following.
“In their boxcar Lynden and The Duke stood like sail- ors on a rolling deck — hands clasped at their backs, feet wide apart for balance, faces thrust forward into the wind,” Davis writes. “Their car was like an oven from a day’s worth of sun, so they pushed back both doors to catch a cooling breeze. On either side, the great brown landscape peeled by. Hills sloped into the long valley. Palisades defined the hollows of the grasslands. The open doors framed the passing scenery like a movie screen, a private showing just for them.”