Pilgrims Upon the Earth
Random House: 230 pp., $23.95
In the mid-1940s, when William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were adapting Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” for the movies, they were confounded by a chauffeur who dies partway through the novel, when his car plunges into Santa Monica Bay. Faulkner and Brackett wanted to know who had killed the chauffeur, but no matter how many times they read the book, the answer remained obscure. Finally, they called Chandler and asked who’d done it; he said he didn’t know.
What this conversation tells us is that there are novels that rely on plot and novels that rely on language. The former may be easier, more accessible, but it’s the latter that pay off.
We don’t read fiction, after all, for story -- or not exclusively, anyway. We read it for music, for rhythm, for the ebb and flow of emotion, for the chance to climb inside, for a few moments, another person and see the world through his or her eyes.
Brad Land’s “Pilgrims Upon the Earth” is a novel that aspires to work in such a fashion, although it has more in common with Faulkner (at times, self-consciously so) than with Chandler’s cynical approach.
This story of Terry, a 15-year-old boy growing up in a dead-end town in South Carolina, is an evocation of loss, of hopelessness, written with exceptional clarity and grace. Terry lives with his father, who works in a textile mill; his mother drowned herself when he was an infant.
"[She] waded into the still part of the river,” Land informs us. “She picked up speed, swept quick with the water like a branch dropped, fluttered hands at her sides, legs straight and long, feet up, soles at the rocks, and then she was at the smaller of the two falls, bouncing through. She went over the big drop, before the boat lock, before the dam, and went under for good.”
Terry’s mother isn’t the only person who’s gone under on him; as “Pilgrims Upon the Earth” progresses, casualties are everywhere.
There’s Alice Washington, his first girlfriend, whose fate changes everything for Terry in ways both great and small. There’s his father, who means well but is not around; “Terry looked at him,” Land writes. “What he thought was, what kind of man are you? . . . He didn’t know a thing about him.” There are Terry’s friends -- Francis, Louden, Noah -- teenagers on the skids, their lives marked by dissolution, fueled by alcohol and drugs.
And then, of course, there is Terry, who wanders through these pages like a shadow or a specter, disconnected, touched by almost no one, scoring his knuckles with the blade of a knife in an effort to make himself feel.
Land does a fine job of evoking the trapped quality of adolescence, its oppressive air of alienation and despair. But as the title of his novel suggests, he’s after something larger, a more profound statement about humanity -- how we are all lost, adrift in the universe with no compass other than our instincts, our own subjective sense of wrong and right.
Terry is an effective vehicle for this investigation; although it’s hard not to sympathize with his traumas, we watch him as if at an unbridgeable distance, the distance between him and the rest of the world. His behavior is almost entirely impulsive, and no matter what he does -- shoplift a pair of sneakers for his father, learn to play bass in a rock band -- we get the sense that there’s no difference, that it’s all the same to him.
And yet, it’s in these simple moments that Land subverts himself, stripping away the universal, even mythic, qualities of his novel in favor of a more prosaic sense of time and place. Although he never explicitly says so, “Pilgrims Upon the Land” takes place in the early 1980s; Terry and his friends listen to the Clash and worry about the Russians and the president. In a different book, such details might help root us; here, they’re jarring, reminders that this archetypal story is not so archetypal after all.
It’s a tricky thing for a writer to create some kind of allegory while setting it within a recognizable world. Faulkner pulled it off because his novels were so steeped in history that the present itself was rendered ghostlike, a scrim through which the living and the dead might interact.
Land, clearly, has something similar in mind -- down to his Faulknerian swirls of language -- but especially late in the novel, he is working at cross-purposes. In one scene, while riding with some punk rock kids in a converted hearse, Terry ponders “ghosts in the wide casket space over his shoulders, how many cries the hearse knew.”
By the next page, however, Land has shifted gears entirely, describing a boy who “played a beat Strat knockoff, stickers pasted to the neck and body of the guitar over pieces knocked out. He had a larger silver paper clip stuck through his left earlobe.”
It’s not that these sensibilities can’t coexist, or even enlarge each other. But Land never reconciles them, and Terry’s increasing drug use only makes us wonder whether his derangement is chemically induced rather than an indication of the difficulty of maintaining one’s footing in the world.
For all that, Land is a superior writer, and his idiosyncratic sense of language ultimately redeems the book. It is relentless, unsentimental, an experiment meant to prove that words don’t so much reveal as they obscure the human heart.
Eventually, Terry embarks upon a quest, a journey -- a true pilgrim now -- only to discover that this leads nowhere too. “There’s supposed to be something here,” Terry says, before slumping in despair.
What Land seems to be saying is that we are all unknowable, that existence is a conundrum and even our most fervent hopes are illusions, fantasies we impose upon an indifferent universe. In such a landscape, we are left with nothing but our own perceptions, and no other choice but to find a passage for ourselves.
That’s a compelling notion, both linguistically and novelistically, and Terry seems to come to terms with it in the end. “He grew taller,” Land writes at the close of this unlikely novel, and the wonder is not that he does so, but that he can.
David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.