In a prologue, novelist Evans (The Mistletoe Secret, 2016, etc.) recounts meeting a (fictional) man in a restaurant on Route 66 in the Mojave Desert who has hiked the famous highway all the way from Chicago.
He's Charles James, an infamous huckster everyone believes died in a plane crash the year before. After much discussion, James gives the author permission to tell his remarkable story "as if I were telling it. A first-person account," he says—and so Evans does, an account that makes up the bulk of the book. As a teenager, then Charles Gonzales hops a westbound bus to escape his father’s brutal beatings. On learning that Jesse James is one of his maternal ancestors, Charles adopts the outlaw’s surname. “Jesse James didn’t run from fights, he started them,” Charles says, and he liked that about the man. On the bus he meets the kind and wonderful Monica, whom he eventually marries and who becomes “my pearl of great price.” Nevertheless, he attends a “Master Wealth Seminar” and gets hooked—not on the “product” but on McKay Benson’s brilliant salesmanship. Charles goes to work for McKay and becomes wildly successful selling wealth formulas that seldom work for the buyer. Eventually, he’s selling his own “gospel of wealth” to enthusiastic audiences at “$327 for each butt in a chair.” Not bad for someone who used to dumpster dive as a kid. Well, good for him, but ever increasing success brings ever increasing absences from his loving wife. And throughout, Charles has his gripes with God, telling his shrink he would hate God if only he believed in him and that “either he doesn’t exist, he doesn’t care, or he’s sadistic…neither merciful nor loving, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to protect me.” Charles James’ world crashes down on him, which readers can see from the story’s outset. But why the sinner is on that hot and lonely road is the question for this morality tale.
A thoughtful, well-plotted yarn that will evoke either pity or schadenfreude.