Although he seems to be a child of privilege, 16-year-old Alex Riley has lost his way. Friendless at school and constantly fighting with his single mother, a rising star in Albany politics, Alex hears from his therapist (a man of questionable competence, more adept at writing prescriptions than anything else) that he’s in danger of becoming a school shooter even though he doesn’t own a gun and wouldn’t know how to use one.
Then Mom decides to burnish her multicultural credentials by taking in in an elderly African-America man—a retired GE engineer with multiple health problems—in a program that serves as an alternative to a nursing home. At first opposed to the idea of sharing his house with a stranger, Alex bonds with the crusty old man, Lester Bray, over sex talk and Alex’s sensitive drawings. Alex hasn’t seen or heard from his own father since he was a toddler, and Lester becomes a sort of father figure who joins Alex in resisting Mom’s tyranny. When Mom decides that Lester will be better off in a nursing home, he and Alex conspire to escape in his pristine vintage Cadillac.
The two head south in search of Alex’s estranged father and Lester’s estranged sister. On the way, Alex learns to drive, and the two confront a racist cop and their own prejudices related to age, race, and sexual orientation. Alex grows on the journey as a result of his close relationship with a caring adult. Readers see him happy for the first time, developing a new sense of competence that a controlling parent had robbed him of, and able to see that relationships are not as clear cut as his mother and his peers have made him think.
Through Lester, Alex makes the kind of connections that convince him he is not going to become a school shooter, and that, despite his social anxiety and awkwardness, he can make friends if he makes the effort. In the course of Cadillac Chronicles we, like Lester, grow to like Alex and believe in him as he comes to believe in himself. Hartman’s road-trip novel, which comes out this month from Cinco Puntos Press, is full of humor and surprises that make it a delightful and insightful read for teenage boys and many girls as well.