Shining Man By Todd Dills, 304 pgs.

In Shining Man, Todd Dills spins a fantastic, gently unreliable narrator in his character Cash. He’s an over-educated guy with “more than a little of that tendency integral to the mad mind of the Southern hedonist to elevate [himself] to mythic status,” stuck for years, through his own inertia, in a gig as a Carolina fry cook. That is, until the events of the novel are jerked into motion by absence. Cash’s deadbeat dad Ralph disappears from his Chicago apartment. Cash drives his janky car up to Illinois, claims his father is dead, finds work at a bar, and starts writing (the narrative is peppered with footnotes-as-examples).

He finds a trove of reflective vests in his father’s apartment, sews them all together, and becomes Shining Man. He walks onto a highway median, where oncoming headlights blind drivers when they bounce off his suit. Cash escapes police detection by jumping into the back of a pickup truck piloted by a sympathetic driver.

Photos of the Shining Man go viral then get turned into the subject of an art exhibition, culminating in many shining suits being disseminated amongst gallery-goers and into the streets of Chicago (and we later see similar suits on a marching band). Cash leaves Chicago for Birmingham, then, later, for the pit crew of a racecar team for one of his high school classmates, then, finally, to Charlotte. Dills renders all this change easily, with nary a seam to be found—he’s impressive on the keyboard.

Threads of modernism are woven through Shining Man: a mysterious note is handed off to Cash by Suited Man, whose (perhaps non-)presence in the novel’s background is Nabokovian; characters named Tacklebox and V nod to Pynchon, as do slogans (DOWN WITH DEBT; WE ARE OUT HERE), racecar conspiracies, actual Nazis. A kind of self-reference familiar to readers of the genre permeates—with enough subtle inconsistency—Cash’s narration to keep astute readers on their toes throughout.

Beyond all this, and beyond the entertainment value of Cash’s road trip, Dills hones in on identity, the need to be seen, excess, self-awareness (and sometimes a lack thereof) throughout. At one point, in Chicago, Cash says, “You can be whatever you want, really: I hadn’t understood that.” Shining Man asks what Cash—what we—want to be, echoing Vonnegut’s declaration in Mother Night that, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend.”

Sounds like a lot, right? It is. Shining Man is dazzling, confusing and honest; a bold take on Southern writing traditions that ruminates on both the region and the modern era, whatever that means in 2020. In Shining Man, Todd Dills confronts us with the true meaning of the phrase “reflective of our times” and its connection to self-identity. What a trip! –Michael T. Fournier (Livingston Press, livingstonpress.uwa.edu)