“And for that matter
This cake is baked but I much prefer the batter
Perhaps in part because it had so much potential
To be delicious and still be influential”
—Sloan “Fading into Obscurity”
Driving along Highway 36 in Colorado recently, I drove past a town where I studied for a brief period. I visited the home where I once lived, toiling away on stories that would inevitably go nowhere, vanishing with the hard drive they’d been written on. Beautiful and flawed experiments filled with promise that never suffered through the indignities of editorial review. I lived in poverty, but my days were rich with hope, that one day, my work would be well received, sought after, respected. Enter Hello Friend We Missed You, the latest from Welsh author, Richard Owain Roberts. A fine pairing for this trip to Colorado. Perhaps it was the reading which conditioned my thinking or my thinking that conditioned my read, either way, we met in the right space and the right time.
Hello Friend We Missed You centers on Hill, a pre-middle-aged podcaster turned screen writer whose script is quickly optioned by Jack Black. Word spreads in his home town of his great success, but he learns, as many do, Hollywood is a slow and fickle bedfellow. Jack Black fades into the distance, still retaining the rights to Hill’s script, but not making headway. Like thousands of eager writers hoping to make their mark in popular culture, Hill sinks into the paralyzing abyss of optioned script purgatory. Hill is a classic character—one whose head is filled with conflicting impulses, some of which he muddles through, others which he navigates wisely; fortunately for the reader, Roberts shows every painful decision and consequence. When his father calls him home for assistance in his day-to-day needs, Hill returns and must face his failures, his fading promise, and the deaths of his mother and partner. He must confront his insecurities in painful detail when he engages in a relationship with his father’s caretaker, Trudy, who must move away.
Trudy is spunky, wild, smart, and filled with her own promise, the antithesis to a brooding Hill, who seems lost in his active self-destruction. In many ways, this is a traditional scenario: the self-loathing artist and the fiery, beautiful, lover, but it’s Roberts’ writing that really makes the story something special—a steady pulse of short sections and tightly wrought sentences which develop a rhythm that ripples forward in a wake of momentum, carrying the story forward with a delightful quickness. In this excerpt, Hill and Trudy watch a film together:
The young Norwegians are wearing oversized cable-knit sweaters for ninety percent of the film.
Hill looks over towards Trudy; engrossed, she is leaning forward, her chin resting on her hands as her elbows rest on her knees.
Concentrate harder; enjoy this more than her, Hill thinks.
Truly hate this film, Hill thinks.
It’s in the clean, direct prose, where Roberts lays bare the complexities of Hill—his inability to accept good things, to love freely, to adapt, free of a need to control the situation and Trudy, who is forever placing him in situations in which he has no control. His character grows more attached to her but also more resentful of her as he knows she’s leaving and he can’t control that. Though Hill has trouble admitting he’s fond of Trudy, he is tortured by the idea of her leaving as he’s grown dependent on her, but also because her departure symbolizes new opportunities for her where Hill feels as if he’s trapped back in his hometown, an actualized fear that seems to him equal to death.
The bleakness of the book is well balanced with gallows humor and loving, tender moments. Perhaps one of the most compelling moments occurs when Trudy invites Hill to join her at a late night beach party and quickly convinces everyone to toss their phones into the ocean. As the crowd anticipates Hill to follow suit, he begrudgingly inches closer to the surf:
Do I have phone insurance, Hill thinks.
Feel sick, Hill thinks.
The blond man with the drum looks back at Hill and smiles broadly. Your turn Hill, he says. Everybody, Hill’s turn […]
Hill looks at Trudy beckoning him into the sea full of enthusiasm.
Hill walks into the sea wearing his shoes and holding his phone.
He looks at Trudy, who leans in towards him and takes his hands in hers.
Give me the phone and throw this instead, Trudy whispers as she transfers a large pebble into Hill’s other hand.”
In this scene (which I’ve edited down, cutting out some of the finer moments that show his dependence upon the phone and his fear of losing losing it) we see her wild spirit, the way she and her friends coax Hill into stepping out of his comfort zone, but we also see, in the very last exchange, her compassion, cleverness, and just how much she does understand and care for Hill.
The relationships in this novel are complicated by the protagonist and these complications are what make this such a compelling book. Beyond this, it simply excels at capturing the uncertainty of life the end of one’s twenties, when the promises of youth that once loomed in the distance, have expired and staled and the characters must come to terms with the parts of living they postponed for the sake of ambition, love, family, and most of all, self reflection and meaningful growth. I’ve become a fan of Welsh writing and Parthian is doing a fine job of bringing books like this into the world. I’m glad this book came my way.
Hello Friend We Missed You
by Richard Owain Roberts
Parthian, 200 p.