Between authoring books like Catch and God Save The Fan, and launching the sports blog Deadspin, Will Leitch has found himself on a home run for the past two decades, his commentary dubbed by The Independent as “irreverent and conversational, frequently merciless and occasionally very funny.” With his latest whack at literature — the coming-of-age mystery novel How Lucky — Leitch is seeking to keep the winning streak going.
Taking place in Athens, Georgia, How Lucky centers around 26-year-old Daniel, who interacts with the outside world chiefly through his job as a social media manager for a commuter airline — monitoring angry customer tweets that cast aspersions at Daniel’s seeming “soullessness, lack of power and influence in society, and general odiousness.” Such struggles are matched by his management of spinal muscle atrophy and folks “[talking] to him like [he] was a moron, like [his] brain was malformed just because [he] used [a wheelchair] and because [he] couldn’t wipe cheese from the side of [his] mouth.”
But an opportunity to confront the real world rather than just the online one presents itself beyond Daniel’s front porch when he witnesses a girl, Ai-Chin Liao, get in a suspicious Camaro one night on the street facing Daniel’s abode, leading to her disappearance and a public outcry that clashes with cries for a good time during a football game-day weekend. With his conscience now challenging him, Daniel sets out to solve the mystery of the missing girl with the help of his caretaker Marjani and best friend Travis.
The book highlights the hardships that come with trying to convince others to care for a just cause in an unjust world. Daniel’s account of the nighttime incident is “voted down by all the Redditors as irrelevant and pointless and ‘poop emoji.’” And when Ai-Chin’s disappearance does get publicity, it also triggers a flood of “craven conspiracy theories” — “the most popular theory [being] that she was trying to defect from China, and someone decided to disappear her to make sure the Chinese government was not embarrassed publicly” — showing that “when people don’t have a story, they will make one up.” Leitch underscores the cycle of travails that those on society’s margins wrestle with daily, especially when they’re trying to do good in the face of societal apathy.
Daniel leverages the courage to give back to society by being “an active participant [who] did not just sit at [his] computer and let [opportunities] pass [him] by.” Instead of ignoring the messages of a mysterious man — and self-proclaimed perpetrator in Ai-Chin’s disappearance — Daniel keeps reaching out to him by discussing mutual feelings of worldly abandonment, if only to compel him to let go of Ai-Chin. Leitch reminds readers of how one can choose to see the world as “a place that can welcome everyone” rather than a place that rejects misfits. A world that has good to offer — and receive — if one digs deeply enough into others and themselves.
Yet this deep digging into Daniel’s mind can also lead to occasionally losing sight of the narrative thread and mystery trail. From discussions about the loosening of drinking laws (and tempers) during football game weekends, to Daniel’s musing about the woes of coughing for someone with spinal muscle atrophy, the book’s non sequiturs may make for palate cleansers that offer biting and bittersweet takes on Daniel’s world and life, but they can be a lot to chew through before reaching the next big chunk of the mystery.
It could be said, however, that with those interludes, Leitch eschews a rock-steady narrative in favor of one that doesn’t sugarcoat Daniel’s inner world or the outer world’s hardships, bridging the gap between readers and Daniel’s unique point of view in the narrative — and in life. And as evidenced by Daniel’s recollection of his time with a caring camp counselor, the narrative isn’t just about finding Ai-Chin — finding Ai-Chin is essentially Daniel’s prompt to partake in the book’s true narrative: to find his place and purpose in a world “bogged down in cynicism and despair.”
Like Daniel himself, How Lucky makes no qualms about the need to reach out to and embrace others in a daunting world that can seem like it’s loath to return the favor. The novel uses its mystery to challenge readers to look at things from a different perspective and embody the sort of empathy that has folks look Daniel in the eye instead of “staring past [him] like a tree stump.” In the same vein as The Last Taxi Driver and the works of George Saunders, Leitch’s whodunit doesn’t take digs at American society just to dig some laughs out of readers, but to raise questions about how to remain oneself rather than becoming what happens to and around them. And by steeling one’s resolve, one can realize how lucky they are to get a chance to exercise virtue so as to say that they have lived, loved, and been loved.
By Will Leitch
Published May 11, 2021