Kelly Daniels was sitting in his ninth-grade speech class while a fellow student held forth on “the greatest subject ever”: eating insects. But just as the classmate was nearing the crescendo of his presentation, complete with blender, peanut butter, a banana, and a bunch of live crickets, Daniels was summoned to the school’s office.

His father was there. “I figured you should hear it from me first,” he said. “Instead of reading it in the paper, or whatever.”

The elder Daniels (also named Kelly) went on to say that he’d woken up in jail with a real bad feeling. “To be honest, it was kind of a relief when the guard finally told me I killed Barclay.”

“Anyway. I’m sorry to lay this on you, but I’m not going to be around to watch your back.”

In his new memoir, Cloudbreak, California (Owl Canyon Press), Daniels chronicles how “the weird kid in the corner who never spoke” in that ninth-grade speech class searches for a place in the world while trying to distance himself from his father as well as garner his approval.

The Daniels family led an iconoclastic, itinerant existence, often living in tricked-out vans while free-spirited dad chased surfing waves along the California coast. It was enough to make any kid feel like he didn’t belong, and young Kelly was no exception. After school he travels, not altogether aimlessly, throughout Central America, holding the occasional odd job, finding the occasional girlfriend, escaping the occasional skirmish. (Having loving, well-off grandparents as a safety net didn’t hurt.) Cooking over a beachfront fire on one occasion, he muses, “I imagined my father seeing me now, and thought that he’d be impressed.”

In the meantime dad had disappeared. But he’d been tracked down by the authorities after hiding out for ten years in the Philippines. After a trial back in the States, he was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter. When he’s released and father and son reunite, the hoped-for deep connection proves as ephemeral as the cloudbreak surfing wave of the title. Only when Daniels ultimately forgoes his own itinerant and unfocused lifestyle does he truly emerge from his father’s long shadow. Sometimes the best place to search is within.

Kelly Daniels
  • Myriam Stangherlin
  • Kelly Daniels

(One quibble: the discerning reader will be unnerved by the occasional typo. For instance, it’s a “wattle” that hangs from a neck, not a “waddle.”)

Daniels currently teaches creative writing at Augustana College in Rock Island. He’ll appear at Local Author Night at the Book Cellar tonight along with Janice Deal, Kelcey Parker, and Jude Stewart.