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‘How Lucky’ driven by a different kind of hero

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A perhaps underrated aspect of a story’s quality is our engagement by the storyteller.

Yes, I mean the person crafting the story in question, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Once we venture beyond the third-person omniscience POV, well … now you’ve got a narrator. Another layer of the storytelling onion.

There are plenty of narrators in the world of fiction, with wave upon wave of first-person perspectives lapping against assorted narrative shores. There’s a certain degree of familiarity that comes with that plentitude – it’s rare for you to get a story to you by someone whose like you’ve never encountered before.

But in Will Leitch’s new novel “How Lucky” (Harper, $25.99), that’s precisely what we get.

The person at the center of this story – the one through whose eyes we watch it all unfold – is unlike anyone you’ve met in literature. And the story that he shares with us is thrilling and funny and just a little off-kilter, driven by the notion that the desire to save the day isn’t confined to a certain type of person. It’s a story of living a life of limitation, yet refusing to be defined by those limitations – even when the world around you isn’t quite so free of judgment.

Daniel’s living a pretty good life. He’s a twentysomething living in Athens, Georgia – go Bulldogs! – and generally making his way. He’s got a couple of close friends that he sees regularly, including his childhood best bud Travis, and a solid job as the social media manager of a regional airline. He’s got his own place and embraces the opportunities that his home presents him.

Daniel is also a lifelong sufferer of spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA. It’s a rare degenerative disease that attacks and destroys motor neurons, rendering those afflicted with increasingly weak musculature. In its worst forms, it is a death sentence for infants. Milder forms – for a given definition of “milder,” anyway – take longer to reach their full deadly potential. For Daniel, this means that he is confined to a wheelchair. He is unable to speak and can barely move on his own. He has caregivers that help him eat and bathe and the like.

And yet, he’s happy. Thanks to a childhood with a single mother who refused to coddle him and a best friend who never treated him as anything other than just another kid, he has grown into someone who maintains as much independence as possible, given the circumstances.

But one day, Daniel’s life becomes a good deal more complicated. He’s on his balcony, gazing out toward the street, when he sees a young woman walking toward campus. A car pulls up, there’s a brief conversation, and in she climbs. Not long afterward, Daniel discovers that the girl in question – an Asian veterinary student named Ai-Chin – has been reported missing.

What follows leads Daniel down a path he’d never expected – a path where he tries to be the hero in a manner that real life rarely leaves room for. And while he’s got his limitations, he’s not going to let them keep him from trying to uncover what happened to Ai-Chin … and to save her before it is too late.

“How Lucky” is a solid thriller, with the layers of cat-and-mouse mystery that lend themselves well to a page-turner. You’ve got the usual red herrings and dead ends and the like. All of those aspects are well-conceived and well-written.

But what makes this book really special is Daniel. We simply don’t see heroes like Daniel in any story, whether it be written or filmed or staged. He is a unique and engaging creation, reasonably clever and adept, but ultimately just a regular guy forced into irregular circumstances.

And that’s the thing – he really is just a regular guy. The reason that “How Lucky” works is because Leitch never once allows Daniel to become some sort of caricature of the disabled. While his actions can’t help but be influenced by his disease, Daniel is never defined by SMA. He’s not defined by his wheelchair or his need for care. By letting us into Daniel’s head, Leitch allows us to understand that his protagonist is just … a dude. A reasonably smart, funny dude, but a dude nonetheless. We’re not expected to view Daniel’s situation as either noble or tragic – it just IS, serving as only one of many aspects of his identity.

Now, the story that surrounds Daniel doesn’t always work. There are a few issues – particularly in the book’s final third or so – that fail to fully click. Things get a little wonky with regard to certain subplots and the story’s resolution feels a touch rushed. But for the most part, it’s a solidly-constructed thriller that balances its tension with humor and self-awareness.

“How Lucky” introduces us to a hero unlike any we’ve seen before, someone committed to help a complete stranger despite not really grasping the true stakes of his involvement. In Daniel, we’re given the chance to experience a story told from a perspective we don’t often get – a story that is taut and poignant and surprisingly funny, all through the eyes of someone who sees the world through an altogether unique lens.

Last modified on Thursday, 27 May 2021 12:46

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