The single-page preface to Promise of Departure, Boise writer Landon W. Montgomery's debut novel, begins like this: "Janet, I can't do this. I won't survive divorce." Then, the entire first chapter is devoted to unloading a motorcycle from a boat.
This unbalanced back-and-forth between a very compelling story and the minutiae of motorcycles continues throughout the book.
Promise of Departure's protagonist Greg was a successful video game developer until he gave it up to focus on his family and inner life. But it isn't long before Greg destroys both of those and ends up mired in divorce proceedings. Rather than fight it out with the wife he still loves, he signs everything over to her and his daughter, then disappears like a thief in the night. He makes his way to post-earthquake Haiti, where he concocts a half-assed plan to roll around the countryside repairing motorcycles as a way to reinvent himself.
It's a compelling premise. And when Promise of Departure focuses on that story, it's a compelling narrative--especially since the details are vivid enough that readers get the feeling Montgomery actually spent time in post-quake Haiti.
But those details are buried in other, less compelling micro-examinations: those of motorcycle functions. Most of the first 100 pages are a narrative of the act of riding a hog with only snatches of exposition or plot dropped in.
While a functioning petcock may be essential to a motorcycle, it is not essential to a narrative. And Montgomery spends an almost prohibitively large amount of space on not only the details of motorcycle repair but on the act of riding. Checking mirrors, examining and discussing accessories, exploring the different kinds of hosing to use on long vs. short trips, all of this is from Greg's inner dialog as he rides.
The author's devotion to motorcycles is as evident as Robert Pirsig's in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was a clear influence on the book. But just as Pirsig maintained that there are two types of riders, those that fix their own bikes and those that have someone else do it, there are also two types of reactions to motorcycle philosophy: "finally someone said it," and "get over yourself."
When Promise of Departure focuses on the story of a man searching for himself in a country that has lost its way, it's a tender look at life and love. However, much of its built-up steam is lost in musings about oil pressure and air filters.