We all know that how we present to the outside world is not how we necessarily feel about ourselves inside; in “So Long, Chester Wheeler,” veteran author Catherine Ryan Hyde explores just that concept. Lewis Madigan is a young software developer who, instead of receiving the generous raise he had been told to expect, receives a pink slip. He is shocked and dismayed. The job market is tight, and he is the breadwinner in his relationship with Tim, his boyfriend.
When he arrives home to share the bad news with Tim, he finds more bad news. Tim is loading up his car and moving to California. What especially hurts is that they had talked about moving to the west coast together and had been saving money from Lewis’s paycheck to do that. Tim absconded alone with the contents of that bank account to live their dream without Lewis. Now Lewis is alone in a home he can’t afford and without a job. The employment prospects look bleak.
While we are learning about Lewis and his predicament, we also meet his hateful neighbor, the title character Chester Wheeler. After Tim drives away, Lewis notices that Chester is in his wheelchair on his front porch. When Chester proclaims that things are looking up, Lewis questions what that means. Chester replies with his usual cruelty, “I used to live next door to a whole bowl of fruits. Now at least we’re down to one piece.” Chester is referring to Lewis and Tim being gay, and his homophobia becomes crystal clear over the course of the novel.
Things take a turn when Chester’s daughter Ellie desperately needs someone to help care for her father. He’s driven away every health care worker with his rude and irascible behavior, and she’s about to become a grandmother and must go to be with her daughter. She is desperate enough to make Lewis a generous offer that would actually cover his bills. He could live at his house and just stay with Chester during the day. Chester orders him not to take the job. Ellie is very desperate. She explains that the job is short term as Chester is dying from cancer, and will only live—at the most—three months.
Lewis does take the job, of course, as we know from the title that in this story Chester must be an important part. And when Chester wants to go to Arizona (from New York) to confront his ex-wife, in a Winnebago that he had bought years before, Lewis reluctantly agrees to take him. It is, after all, Chester’s dying wish. What follows is the heart of this story as Ryan Hyde demonstrates, with every bit of dialogue and every action, every one of Lewis’s thoughts — the themes of love, loss, hate, forgiveness, and redemption. The narrative is from Lewis’s point of view, so we only see what he sees, we only are privy to conversations he’s involved in (or overhears). When Chester has a private conversation, we don’t know what it’s about. But what we do know is that on the journey with Chester Wheeler, getting to know Chester and deal with his truly despicable behavior and his homophobia, learning what in fact lies behind Chester’s hate and his inability to trust anyone, changes Lewis.
In fact, on the back of this book is a quote from a review that I wrote (for Bookreporter.com and my blog) about a different book, “Seven Perfect Things,” by Ryan Hyde, which also perfectly applies to this novel: “In this novel, Ryan Hyde clearly demonstrates her uncanny ability to show human nature at both its best and worst, in ordinary people who sometimes do extraordinary things.” Another of her books, one I chose as a Bookreporter pick of my top three reads of 2022, is “Dreaming of Flight.” A quote from that review, which also appeared in Bookreporter.com, is perfectly applicable to this novel as well: “No one is perfect in this story, just as in real life none of us is perfect. But flaws and all, we are all worthy of love.”
While many important themes tie Ryan Hyde’s novels together, in most of them we meet some truly reprehensible characters, people we don’t like. Chester Wheeler might just be the most unlikeable character she has created, but in spite of his horrible character traits, there are some things that we respect about him. He doesn’t really prevaricate— he tells it like it is to the nth degree. No matter how unpleasant his pronouncements, he doesn’t sugarcoat his words. But we come to realize that Chester may have a reason for his behavior, and what Lewis comes to realize about that will change his life. It will also cause us to think carefully about all the unpleasant people we know or have known as we wonder what has made them that way. What makes Ryan Hyde’s novels so thoughtful and important is that she writes about people who are like us, people who may have lost their jobs, people who have lost loved ones, people who are lost in their lives. She writes about ordinary people to whom we can relate because we are like them or we know someone like them. And she finds the beauty and hope in those ordinary lives, thus giving us hope for our own ordinary — or even extraordinary — lives.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover novel provided by Lake Union Publishing, the publisher, for review purposes.