When he was a little boy, Thad Nodine would play a game with his grandfather near his grocery store at the intersection of N Fort Harrison and Myrtle avenues.
"He would tell me to close my eyes,'' said Nodine, who is now 54. "He'd lead me as if I were blind. He'd take me up stairs and we'd cross streets and after a while, he'd stop and have me try to guess where I was.''
Little did Nodine know that the game he played with his grandfather, Frank Nodine, at Nodine's Grocery Store would guide him as he wrote his first novel, Touch and Go, more than 45 years later. In the novel, the main character and narrator is Kevin, a blind man who lost his sight at age 5.
Nodine, a 1975 Clearwater High graduate who now lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., recently made his first trip back home since Touch and Go was released in September. The book has won a Dana Award, an honor from a North Carolina-based awards program for first-time novelists. It has also generated some hefty thumbs-ups from national publications, including Publisher's Weekly and Booklist.
"My grandfather taught me two things," Nodine said. "He taught me how to perceive the world in a different way, through different senses, and he also taught me irony, because my grandfather was struck with macular degeneration (a condition that can lead to blindness) when I was a teenager. I then started leading him around."
In the book, Kevin is on a cross country adventure with two recovering drug addicts, Isa and Patrick, and their foster children, Ray and Devon. The dysfunctional family aims to deliver a handmade coffin, tied to the roof of an old station wagon, to Isa's dying father. As they journey from California to Florida, they face many obstacles, including Hurricane Katrina.
While Nodine was back in Pinellas County, he spent time with his parents, William and Chris Nodine of Belleair, and also held a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Clearwater. Some 100 people, many of them old friends, turned out for the event.
"At the signing, I was really struck by the emotional power of having so many lifelong supporters in the same room at once,'' Nodine said. "It was one of the best days of my life."
It was not until after Nodine finished Oberlin College, where he received undergraduate degrees in political science and philosophy, that he realized he wanted to write full time.
He took a job as a speechwriter for then U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles in Washington, D.C.
"It was right after Oberlin, and I learned how to write his speeches by studying Lawton's voice. I tried to capture his down-home quality in the ones I wrote,'' he said.
After two years in Washington, he decided to head West. He worked as a publishing director for an art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and as a journalist in Colorado. Finally, he moved to Santa Cruz, where he eventually earned a doctorate in literature.
Nodine admits his own challenges are nothing compared to the ones his characters face in the novel. Their lives are spent teetering on the brink of disaster.
"I had a happy childhood, but I will say that this book is about how we all have disabilities of some sort. We all must face challenges at some point,'' he said.
Nodine's challenges came after college as he tried to carve out a career as a novelist. He began focusing on fiction at a time when the publishing industry was scaling back, and it took him years to break through and get published.
Ask his father, William Nodine, the former head of Clearwater Federal Savings and Loan, if he ever expected his son to become a writer, and he will quickly say, "No." He thought his son would make a good lawyer.
"But we never want to discourage our children from doing what they want to do," William Nodine said. "It's just that I had no way of helping him in that regard. It was his life to find his place as a novelist, and it has been a long, hard process. We are very proud."
While he was in town, Nodine also spent time with his old friend Don Myers, a retired Shell Oil employee who now lives in Houston. He and Nodine met in fifth grade at Belcher Elementary, attended what was then Oak Grove Junior High, and graduated from Clearwater High together. Myers made sure to plan a trip home to Florida for the book signing.
"When we were in high school, Thad was always a hard worker, and when I look back, I know he inspired me to always do better,'' Myers said. "Once I heard he decided not to go into law and become a writer, I knew it would only be a matter of time before he found success."
Piper Castillo can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4163.