In 1857, when Charles Baudelaire first published "Les Fleurs du Mal," the masterwork so effectively alluded to in Kate Braverman's new novel, "Wonders of the West," its dark, poetic voice found resonance against the contrasting background of Romanticism. In this post-Freudian era of "hard copy" and environmental ruin, few secrets are to be revealed by a novel of Baudelairian vision in which life is portrayed as inherently ailing, but "Wonders of the West," just this sort of book, is a work of importunate intensity, as unsettling as it is powerful.
Unscrambling the scrambled chronology of this story about one girl's escape from a miserable adolescence, we meet Jordan Lerner and her mother, then called Ruth, at home in New Jersey. Ruth sees a museum exhibit from China that includes photographs of women with bound feet, and these images cause her to question the abuses of her sex by men. When Ernie, her husband, walks out, Ruth renames herself Roxanne and, soon after that, takes Jordan on an ill-fated journey to California in search of answers and fortune.
When Baudelaire wrote, for example, "The Portrait"--whose lines begin, "Look what Death and Disease have made / of our old flame: a heap of ashes. My God how horrible!"--his gloom would soon give way to brighter suppositions in which his "voyage prospered." When traveling with Baudelaire, there are always breathtaking outlooks along the way. But the places visited by Roxanne and Jordan during their transcontinental drive of wrong turns and ungratified longings are hardly those that stir hopes with their wonders. America, Jordan tells us, is a land of "trucks with killer faces." Only in the occasional flowers these forlorn travelers happen upon and admire is there the suggestion of promise.
Roxanne's brother Louie used to be a rich Los Angeles bookie, but by the time Jordan and Roxanne arrive on Louie's doorstep, his life has changed. He has terminal cancer and has lost all his money. Things are so bad, in fact, that he and his wife, Doris, are living at Palm Courts West, a unit of subsidized housing for patients at Palms Memorial Hospital. Uncle Louie and Aunt Doris have come to think of Southern California as "a treacherous desert outpost where everyone is an informer and thief." It is no wonder they feel this way; a more depressing environment than "the Courts" would be hard to imagine. There is little to do there but play cards with the other patients as you wait for your certain untimely death.
Roxanne, the only one with any luck in this family, is frequently off with her sometimes sadistic male friends in faraway tropical resorts. But if she comes back refreshed by her travels and by being spoiled, it does not take the form of love for her daughter. When Jordan meets a neighborhood man who forces her to perform oral sex with him, Roxanne dismisses her daughter's hurt by telling her that the experience is "like a street tax. That's what it costs to grow up in a stinking city." Aunt Doris is quick to tell Jordan that her mother is trash. "You know low?" she asks. "You know the lowest? Look under that. You'll find her. She's the layer under the scum. She's where the maggots breed."
It is perhaps to the author's credit that she made this book as tough as she felt she had to, taking the risk of exposing, courageously, the true character of life's underbelly, which so many of us are afraid to face and thereby accept. But her insistent emphasis on the dark nature of all things, as well as the defeated, faithless side of human beings, might be the novel's essential flaw. Even Braverman's attempt to lighten things up by having her characters make playful plans to appear on the TV show "Queen for a Day" fails to bring much lasting joy or optimism into their daily lives.
Jordan's best friend is Jimmy Nakamura, whose family has been victimized by both Hiroshima and the American detention camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. At one point he and Jordan, who is Jewish, compare the atrocities committed against their respective peoples, and these shared hurts bind them together when Jimmy and Jordan eventually flee to San Francisco, with its promise of '60s idealism.
"Wonders of the West" is an intense probing of life within. It examines and names, fearlessly, the evils of an imperfect world. Reading Baudelaire, Jordan's favorite poet and her primary source of inspiration, the reader is heartened by a celestial grace that is poetry at its most profound, that is the flowering of human creativity. What keeps this book from amounting to little more than a morbid exercise in complaint about all that is wrong with human experience is the achievement of its high-resolution language. Braverman, who has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, is an artist of considerable talent, and it is her gift that will ultimately earn this novel its place in the reader's memory.
The journey traveled in "Wonders of the West" is not a ride for readers with delicate stomachs. This is a difficult piece of writing about memory and the quest for self-divinization, worthy concerns, certainly, for serious fiction.