Rudolph Wurlitzer, The Drop Edge of Yonder (Two Dollar Radio, 2008)
Rudolph Wurlitzer is better known as a screenwriter than as a novelist, which isn’t surprising, since he wrote Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and has worked with directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Sidney Lumet, Jim McBride, Robert Frank, and Alex Cox. But Wurlitzer is an extraordinary fiction writer, one whose often hallucinatory prose is influenced by both Buddhism and European post-war modernism.
His first two works, the “head” novels Nog (1969) and Flats (1970), challenge conventional notions about identity and the self. Wurlitzer has often been compared to Samuel Beckett, but these ur-American texts possess a strange, pop-inflected desolation and sense of alienation that is all their own. His following novel, Quake (1972), is an absurdist, apocalyptic take on what happens when the Big One hits L.A. Slow Fade (1984), a more conventional but still excellent tale of filmmaking and family relations, deftly deploys different levels of narrative.
Wurlitzer’s fifth novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder, is based on a screenplay treatment for a western that made the rounds in Hollywood but never saw the light of day. His vivid language has a poetic, almost magical, intensity: “They rode beneath a cold shiver of metallic stars, their horses’ hooves thudding over the black earth.”
After a wham-bam opening, Wurlitzer weaves together desultory travels, sudden outbursts of disorienting violence, and various characters’ down-home or wigged-out philosophizing to create an atmospheric work that fuses the road novel and the western.
Yonder uses period dialogue and references historical figures and events, but its characters continually refer to in-between states that evoke the Bardo plane—the state of existence in Buddhism where the self resides between earthly incarnations. And this western beautifully captures the glimmering maya of a gold-and-gun-and-sex-crazed frontier.
Peter Conners, Emily Ate the Wind
(Marick Press, 2008)
Peter Conners’s novella Emily Ate the Wind unfolds as a textured series of 2-3 page soundbursts that populate and interview the far-reaching ghost of America’s everytown bar. It’s a story of bad luck and unseen brinks, lived by loose circles of friends that bond and unbond as strangely as real people. They teach school, sell real estate, cut lawns, purchase cocaine, and frequent a bar called The Bar. And so their stories tend toward the tragic. But in Conners’s hands tragedy is never a means or an end. His project here is more varied and ambitious; each short prose piece seems to speak in its own language, each gives a view of its subject as seen from blindingly close range, and since many of the stories read at first as departures from the main narrative, the expanding implications revealed on a subsequent pass form a wide wholeness that books twice its length rarely achieve.
We begin in a state of fading lucidity, in the thoughts of Dan, a The Bar patron lying beaten and bleeding in the establishment’s parking lot. We meet the rest of the cast, (a pair of buddies, a grandfather, a set of girlfriends, a toddler, among others,) in quick succession. As stories, the pieces live or die on voice, and for much of the book the rise and fall of action equals the rise and fall of Conners’s sentences themselves. There is something hyperstylized and cryptic about our main narrator that contrasts with the reporterly forthrightness in the various departing pieces. Sometimes the contrast seems as important as the content; for most of the novella the story doesn’t so much progress as it does grow new arms and legs, and the book’s architecture neatly isolates both reader and character from a bigger picture. Texture and movement take over. By the final scenes, a unifying bang seems unlikely. But Conners’s ending transforms the story with clarity and force, and we are thrust back to page one with reaffirmed respect for the inevitable.
Emily Ate the Wind offers something rare. Its confidence of vision, rooted early in Conners’s stance as poet and stylist, earns an acceptant reading. Its precise attention to accent and moment make it a modern period piece of sorts, and despite the fact that its cleverness sometimes feels written in, it has a physical authenticity that realist writers will envy. And it satisfies the story test. These heroes find themselves suddenly and always at a loss. Because they act and are acted upon there is harbor in each for warring forms of guilt, chance, and ignorance. They know very little about each other. They know about as much as we do about crime or wind or what to do.
Carl Watson, The Hotel of Irrevocable Acts (Autonomedia, 2008)
D.A. Miller brought Foucault to the novel in The Novel and the Police, exposing the development and workings of the “novelistic Panopticon.” Carl Watson’s novel, The Hotel of Irrevocable Acts, seems a new development for the 21st century, another turn in the Foucauldian screw. We don’t get discipline. We get crime. We don’t get the novelistic Panopticon. We get a hotel.
In a world populated by hotel/halfway house inmates, criminally artistic and artistically criminal minds, four lives cross around the same crime that may not have really occurred. “Really” is a word, already problematic in fiction, that Watson further complicates. What is really happening? Structurally, Watson makes it difficult to locate oneself in the text. Shifting voices and suspended temporality disorient us. But it is precisely through disorientation, as our familiar notions of “reality” fail to serve us, that we locate ourselves really. The crime we assume is the central story is deferred as the novel moves through reflections on tabloids and their production of the modern reality: monstrous fish, people gestating stone or gelatinous fetuses in their heads, chests, throats, etc. But at its most bizarre, there is always something strangely familiar. Watson plays up the realities that haunt our fiction and the fictions that haunt our reality, compromising the integrity of the boundaries between them. Because crime is transgression, it becomes the way to mediate this fragmented fiction/reality, art/life. It, like the novel in general, like this novel in particular, crosses the line.
The more you inhabit this novel, the more it inhabits you. But where exactly is this hotel? The spaces in the novel all blend into each other, just as the characters blend into each other. Maybe there’s only one character and everything else is a fantasy. Ultimately, The Hotel is in your head, or you’re in it’s head, and you can’t get out. Like a Roach Motel—but maybe a five-star one, because for those of us criminal enough to read novels, it feels like home.
FRED CISTERNA writes a spoken-word column for Signal to Noise magazine.John Colasacco
Colasacco was the 2007 recipient of the Iowa Review Award for Poetry.Anitta Santiago