Bruce Duffy appears to specialize in impossible relationships. His 1987 novel "The World As I Found It" recounted the quasi-historical rivalry and friendship between linguistic philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, who believed, to varying degrees, in a language that could explain language. As a correspondent for the Discovery Channel's online magazine, Duffy's "Inside Bosnia" dispatches attempted to make sense of the utterly irrational. "After a while," he wrote in one, "you begin to wonder about everything, from their unyielding beliefs to my own prejudices and complete inexperience here. I am an epilogue without the prologue. It makes me feel like a cop responding to a really ugly domestic dispute. The knife's hidden and the wife's washed the blood off her face. So what's real?"
The 13-year-old protagonist of Duffy's snappy "Last Comes the Egg" faces a similar mystery. In this ambitious tragicomedy, colored in bright shades of adolescent risk and cultural spunk, Frank Dougherty hits the road with a pair of motherless pals after he's unable to make sense of his own mother's death and father's desire for remarriage. Although no child can ever hope to truly understand his parents' relationship, Duffy goes a long way toward sketching the dramatic outlines of his complicated family history. Frank must ultimately forget that history in order to fully comprehend it. A love story turned into a road story halfway through, "Last Comes the Egg" morphs into "Huckleberry Finn" meets "On the Road."
Duffy is better with sex and class than he is with race. Frank's sexual initiation is warm, frantic and believable; and his family's class problems are intriguingly enigmatic. But the idealized black farming family that ultimately rescues the three boys is too perfect. Likewise, the present-day Frank's appearance at the end of the book seems overly tidy and reassuring. Like Russell Banks' recent "Rule of the Bone," Duffy's "Last Comes the Egg" is a fascinating take on American boyhood. At his best, Duffy writes smartly and sadly about ultimate love and loss. Perhaps the only thing preventing this from being a completely satisfying work is its ambition.