The Longest Trip Home, By John Grogan

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The Independent Culture

Conventional wisdom holds that you have to hook a reader in your first paragraph, page or chapter. Perhaps John Grogan figures that he has cut himself a bit of slack from such rules by the international success of Marley & Me, his tale of one man and his dog. For the opening sections of the American writer's second volume of memoirs feel overly familiar and flat.

To be fair, Grogan is describing what he, I and countless millions of other fortysomethings were among the last to experience: the traditional Catholic childhood, complete with holy statues, pious parents, brutal nuns, altar serving and hang-ups about sex that are belatedly and clumsily overcome. This is well-covered territory, done much better by any number of writers from Edna O'Brien to John Walsh.

What irritates in particular is Grogan's failure even to attempt to work out why his parents put him through the ordeal, or what damage it may have done him. He reports, without comment, that two of his four siblings never marry and one waits until his fifties. Why did their parents' apparently blissful Catholic marriage put their children off the institution?

Predictably, Grogan then lapses from the faith, and this is where the book begins to pick up. His account of trying to reconcile his chaste young adulthood, then his agnostic live-in girlfriend, with his parents and their rigid morality sees The Longest Trip Home start opening outwards to readers, and becomes a universal tale of how each generation fights and loses the battle to control the next.

Again, the struggle to live up to and live down parental expectations has been done many times before, but that mixture of familiarity, humour and sentimentality at the heart of the appeal of Marley & Me resurfaces. With the increasing physical and mental (though never spiritual) fragility of his mum and dad, Grogan becomes a parent-like figure to his own parents.

Grogan shows himself a master purveyor of schmaltz that just about stops short of mawkishness. I blubbed – as he intended. Usually, when a writer is trying to make me cry, I'm left dry-eyed, but Grogan does it with a charm and honesty that would pierce the best-sealed tear ducts.

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