Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
“I’m afraid that it’s cancer again, Richard, and this time it’s a bad one.”
The opening line to Ralph F. Brady’s novel “Borrowed Time” pulls no punches. It establishes the protagonist’s dilemma and sets him on a journey that takes him back over 100 years.
Forty-year-old Richard Carpenter has an eight-year history with various illnesses, all of which he has overcome. However, in this instance, the odds are against him; he is given a prognosis of one year. He begins to suspect that his difficulties can be traced to damage done by his paternal grandfather, whose alcoholism and work with dangerous chemicals altered the family’s DNA. It is this hypothesis that drives the action.
Coinciding with this news is the closing of the boatyard where he works as a skilled and gifted mechanic, welder and “jack-of-all-trades.” He quickly gets a position working on a secret project at Brookhaven National Lab. This turns out to be a government-sponsored time travel venture that is about to be shut down. Convinced that he can change his health by altering his history, Richard volunteers to be the first human to be sent back in time.
The majority of the novel is taken up with Richard’s experience in the past, spanning the end of 1899 through the beginning of 1900. It is a personal story and not about the science of time. Instead, it is about Richard’s need for answers. He knows that his situation might be unsolvable but he hopes to at least understand how his fate came about.
Brady has meticulously researched turn-of-the-century Long Island and paints both a community and global picture of the time. There is great fun in many local references, both past and present. For example, the train from Brooklyn to Greenport is always on time as there are only four stops.
Richard meets and befriends his paternal grandfather, Francis, and attempts to guide him toward a sober life. He does this in full knowledge that there are any number of repercussions. Richard even visits with Francis’ wife – his grandmother – whom he would meet in his own childhood.
Francis invites Richard to work alongside him in the research and construction of submarines, being built and tested in New Suffolk. Brady brings to life this world, including inventor J.P. Holland, who took this craft to the next step. (There is a particularly harrowing description of a submersion that nearly goes wrong.)
Of course, with his modern know-how, Richard quickly becomes invaluable. Politics and personalities intersect as Richard guides Francis to better choices.
Romantic entanglements with his boardinghouse landlady make Richard question his 21st-century commitments. Initially, there are sweet scenes of a pastoral nature. However, Brady is smart enough to know that nothing is simple and the complications mount as Richard weighs his past and present lives, considering the choices he has and the uncertain future he faces.
The fact is, he becomes not just comfortable with this brave old world but connects with it in ways he didn’t expect.
Brady has a natural and engaging prose. While it is told third person, it feels as if Richard is speaking, giving the narrative a personal and unaffected voice. Richard raises eyebrows with latter-day idioms (“fifteen minutes of fame,” “go to my head”) and must continually create a detailed, false history.
In addition, he has skills and insights that he must introduce without arousing too much suspicion. With shades of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” he is a man living out of his time.
Any work that focuses on time travel and the changing of a time line demands a logical and satisfying resolution. The final twist in “Borrowed Time” provides a smart and powerful final stroke in Brady’s debut novel.
Author Ralph Brady is a retired executive from the transportation industry. His latest novel,“Borrowed Time,” is available online from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and through local bookstores. The Mount Sinai resident is also the author of “Landmarks & Historic Sites of Long Island,” “Images of America: Glendale” and “A Maritime History of Long Island.”