It should be said from the beginning that Guy Sims has the ability to make some of the darkest times of our generation a stage for Living Just a Little without overwhelming the entire novel. His ability to incorporate both the MOVE bombing and 9/11 into a story about redemption, love, and self-discovery is admirable. The events, not sugar-coated or minimized in their horrors, are great allegories for the lives of Ellis, Sylvania, Twist, and Devon. Individually, each of the characters has his or her own path to walk, but collectively they represent a bit of each of us.
Set in Philadelphia in 1985, and weaving through time until 2001, Living Just a Little is a brisk 310 pages. Sims’ work moves quickly across the page without feeling rushed or lacking. I found myself vested in Ellis, concerned about his ability to cope with not only his witness to trauma in childhood, but also his ability to break free from the confining life he’d created for himself. While his inability to speak up was at times frustrating, he was human and flawed in ways that made sense. He was not presented as a martyr nor as a scapegoat. He was a man with a past working to improve and stabilize his life.
What works best for Sims is is his use of Philadelphia as the fifth character. Just as those blocks burned in 1985 and the city imploded and rebuilt several times over, Ellis, Sylvania, Twist, and Devon have each burned and across each chapter they are digging through the rubble left behind in order to find the pieces of themselves to rebuild. Some are more successful than others and it is Twist who I feel is the least developed of the characters. Her partial redemption and background seem vague. Philadelphia, very much tangible in description and location, is much more of a touchstone.
Living Just a Little is a solid read. It doesn’t fall into the trap of being opaque to account for some of the darker plot devices nor does it lend itself to be just a love story. It is a well written view of what it’s like to face your past and rise to your future