Dandelion Travels catches seventeen-year-old Eric at an inopportune moment in his life. Oppressed by his father’s ideals, he’s grown bitterly aware of his Blackness, queerness, and lack of heed for gender norms. It’s not until his father’s infidelity is exposed that Eric’s image of a perfect family, and the perfect son, ruffles.
Enticed by his friend’s invitation to join her in LA for the summer, Eric attempts to outpace his unease. If only he and her boyfriend didn’t have a shared history.
Barber makes playful use of form, letting verses slip, slide, clasp each other, then split without shedding their quiet force. The imagery, likewise, throttles the physicality of feeling. Rage surfaces as a fist, recognition as erosion, power as a laugh. Though ostensibly trite at times, this logic is ruled by the limitations of the Hi-Lo verse novel. And it’s not uncommon for a pearl to draw the eye with its glint,
This mode of storytelling, continually referencing childhood and the comfort of a mother’s preoccupation, is endearing at times and affected at others; particularly in the context of a boy in his late teens. As a result, the narrative voice takes on a callow whirr, distracting us from the verse’s steady rhythm and the interrelational complexity it alludes to.
Still, the work’s underlying tension manages to make itself known, mainly in the form of the disconnection between what is said and what is crudely felt. Breakaway verses, dispassion, and elusiveness move in, dominating the white space.
Though this benefits the snappy progression of the scenes, emotion proves too dense to keep pace. This becomes obvious when Eric’s new love interest, Zachary, emerges from the gloom, introducing our protagonist to the tugs and pangs of first love. Worse still, he inspires the boy’s submission to feeling, specifically its tendency to narrow the world down to an individual,
Despite the intensity spilled onto the page, Eric’s attachment to the boy proves surprisingly shallow. The ache and betrayal that follow are therefore perfunctory, meant only to drive the message of self-love blindingly home.
What’s more, Eric’s feelings for Zachary, noted to have been more profound than his three-year-old infatuation with a friend, dissipate as soon as his pride demands it, constructing a relatively unstable growth arc. The weight of alienation carried by Eric’s appearance proves far more compelling, as it feeds the rage trying to dismantle the narrative,
The way in which fury stokes Eric’s sense of powerlessness is understandable, as self-worth proves to be the ultimate takeaway. And it’s through themes of bigotry and violence that Dandelion Travels displays its partially realized potential.
Publication date: October 1, 2022 (West 44 Books)