Imagine your father pulling you out of school to tell you he killed a man. How would you react to this news?
Kelly Daniels was nine when his father announced he killed a cousin, a drug dealer. The elder Daniels was already a stranger, having left his family months earlier.
Driving away from the school, his father says, "You can cry if you want."
Daniels describes his reaction in Chapter 1 of Cloudbreak, California:
The air in the Rover began to shimmer, and everything went strangely vivid. Dad's voice didn't travel through the space between us; it was just there in my head. Meanwhile, the other sounds -- engine, tires, wind -- came hushed, as if through a thick bubble of glass ... I looked out the window, and the world revealed itself as false, a movie set thrown together just for this moment. The cars speeding by were driven by actors pretending not to notice what was going on. The trees and the sky were painted onto screens. I covered my face in my hands to contain the maniac laughter bubbling in my chest. Oh no, I wasn't going to cry. The opposite. I felt wonderful. I know this sounds strange, even cold-blooded, but that's the right word. Full of wonder. I'd become an actor playing myself in the movie about my life, and I knew nothing was ever going to be the same again.
Daniels wrote this memoir, in part, because of his reaction. "The book," he says, "was a way to try to work through this conflict between what I think I should've felt, and what I did feel."
Before his trial begins, Daniels's father flees the country. A decade later, Daniels also leaves for Mexico and Central America. He takes odd jobs to afford food and rent and has a series of adventures. He tells WNIJ his journey was partly about finding himself, and partly about becoming the man his father might've admired.
"It's strange," Daniels says, "because I also resented him. At the same time, I'm trying to impress the imaginary man I resent."
During this time, Daniels nearly falls to his death at a Mayan temple, cooks seafood on a remote beach with fellow Gringos, consumes hallucinogenic mushrooms, nearly gets arrested for importing said mushrooms, falls in and out of love, and nearly dies from malaria. It is a period, during his 20s, when he accomplishes little and regrets little:
"As a teacher now, I often tell my students to slow down," the author says. "You think you want that career job, but you might get it and wish you hadn't jumped into it."
One of his most bizarre adventures occurs in El Salvador during the mid-1990s. The post-civil war government, in an effort to boost tourism, opened a free resort on the beach. Daniels heard about it and decided to check it out:
In front of me stood a tall wooden gate, slightly ajar. I peeked through at a courtyard, all broken concrete and brown weeds. On the far side of the courtyard was a wide, one-story building that resembled a junior high cafeteria, built in the 1950s and abandoned ever since. I entered like a thief, fearing dogs and men. A couple of palms stood near the building, scruffy with dead fronds all the way down their trunks. A modernist half arch swung out from the cafeteria wall. Its turquoise paint was chipped and faded. To the right a swimming pool languished, empty and stained green around the water line. The place felt bad, the site of a massacre or something.
The only other person is a guard who doesn't speak English but invites him to play ping-pong. That night, Daniels sleeps in a dorm room infested with bats.
If you interpret this passage as a metaphor for the promise of adventure, followed by the disappointing reality, you're not far off. "A lot of what the book is about," Daniels says, "is a fantasy world, and a very slow emergence into what I guess we can call reality."
Part of the reality awaiting Daniels is his father's arrest in the Philippines and detention in an Orange County jail cell. Daniels's grandparents, who are wealthy, hire an attorney who wins a minimal sentence of six years in prison.
When the father gets out, he spends time surfing with his son. The reunion is bittersweet because the two had grown far apart. The gulf gets wider when Daniels publishes his book.
"I had heard from other people that he was hurt," the author says, "or that he didn't like the book, or didn't like his portrayal." After the book's release, Daniels says, his father sent a text message saying he was proud of him. But, according to Daniels, each subsequent text came from a different number. His father never revealed his address and maintains no Internet presence.
"I suppose that's one of the negative consequences of the book," Daniels says. "A relationship that wasn't much there is less so now, and that's a shame."
Cloudbreak, California won the first prize for creative nonfiction at the San Miguel Writer's Conference.
Kelly Daniels is a professor of English at Augustana College. He lives in Rock Island with his wife and son.