Middle-aged people ask themselves frequently, "How did I get here?" Meaning, of course, how did a fresh-faced youngster with pretty dreams and lofty ideals end up in a job he never imagined he'd do and with a boring, stressful daily life that his youthful self would have abhorred?

In his debut novel, "The Brightest Moon of the Century," native Minnesotan Christopher Meeks chronicles one man's path to middle age and, in doing so, illustrates how choices and circumstances -- even those that seem arbitrary at the time -- have a way of irrevocably cementing a person's future.

Though Meeks' hero, Edward, is a somewhat hollow character and Meeks' prose can be clunky, "The Brightest Moon of the Century" succeeds as a unique type of "How did I get here?" diagram.

Meeks tells Edward's story in time blocks. ("Taking Aim: Summer 1977," "Stark Changes: Fall 1979-Spring 1980," etc.) Each block represents a time of change in Edward's life, such as going away to college or deciding to take a particular job.

We meet Edward soon after his mother dies and he's being alternately pushed and ignored by his strict father, who forces him to attend a snobbish private school where the wealthier students tease him. Later, we visit Edward in his late teens as he's discovering pot and his sexuality. He goes on to college in Colorado, then to a random and drastic career leap to trailer park management in the South, then on to the film industry and marriage in Los Angeles.

Though the essence of Edward's goals and desires remain somewhat unclear, put together, these chunks of story enlighten the zigs and zags that bring people to the careers and family lives that will ultimately define them.

Meeks' outstanding weakness, however, is his consistently ham-handed attempts to create time and place authenticity with overwrought exposition -- often at the expense of realistic dialogue.

For example, when teenage Edward is trying to make conversation with his stepbrother's nanny, he says, "I see the Minnesota Twins are doing pretty well this summer." Later he asks her, "Did you hear the Mann France Avenue Drive-in recently installed in-car heaters, so we can go there even in the winter?" (Have teenagers ever referred to local leisure options by the full name found in the phone book?) Later, Meeks describes Edward's roommate's affinity for "'Three's Company,' a show about two beautiful women in constantly tight clothes who lived as roommates with a guy named Jack." (Uh, thanks for filling us in on that.)

But when he's not wasting words defining overwrought pop culture as if it's newly unearthed history, Meeks manages to put together a thoughtful, fresh-feeling portrait of how we become who we are. Meeks' Edward may not be the most compelling hero, but, as a case study, he's fascinating.

Cherie Parker blogs at thelitlife.com.