RUDOLPH WURLITZER is best known as a screenwriter (“Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” “Little Buddha”), but in the late 1960s and early 1970s he wrote three odd, incandescent novels that merged a Beckett-like sense of ennui with the cool irony of the counterculture to explore the territory between what we perceive and what we are.
“Nog” offered a new kind of American travelogue, in which constant movement is less liberatory than it is static. “Flats” takes place on the edge of a devastated city in the wake of the apocalypse. The finest of these books, “Quake,” unfolds in Los Angeles after the Big One, presenting a vision that is utterly brutal, of a society in which the veneer of civility has been stripped away to reveal the venality and animal aggression underneath.
Wurlitzer hasn’t published a work of fiction since his fourth novel, “Slow Fade,” appeared in 1984, but now, after nearly a quarter of a century, he has reemerged with “The Drop Edge of Yonder,” a postmodern western that blends the sensibilities of his writing and his films. This story of a trapper named Zebulon Shook, who is cursed to “drift like a blind man between the worlds, not knowing if you’re dead or alive, or if the unseen world exists, or if you’re dreaming,” is the most linear of Wurlitzer’s novels, although to call it realistic would be a stretch.
Rather, “The Drop Edge of Yonder” exists between worlds, by turns satirical and existential, like a picaresque American “Book of the Dead.” This is its charm but also its central problem, for as Zebulon skitters from New Mexico to Veracruz, Mexico, to Panama to Gold Rush-era San Francisco, we start to drift as well.
To be fair, that may be partly the point, for Wurlitzer is a longtime student of Buddhism. It was the subject of his 1994 nonfiction book, “Hard Travel to Sacred Places,” and “The Drop Edge of Wonder” opens with an epigraph from the Lankavatara Sutra: “Things are not as they appear. Nor are they otherwise.”
Although a Buddhist western sounds appealing, in this incarnation Wurlitzer can’t quite pull it off. The novel raises fascinating questions about life and death, attachment and reconciliation, but ultimately it feels like an endlessly repeating loop. In a telling bit of exposition, the author writes: “From the moment Delilah slid the cards across the table, Zebulon felt caught inside a repetition that he was unable or unwilling to back away from. He had been trapped here before, over and over, ever since he had first seen Delilah in the Panchito saloon.”
“The Drop Edge of Yonder” operates in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Southern -- the 1960s black humorists. That makes sense, for Wurlitzer is their contemporary, forged by the same belief that all is up for grabs.
Here, though, Wurlitzer never roots his vision in anything bigger than its own absurdity. “Lately I come to see life like that,” says a character, “one damn dream after another,” and that’s where “The Drop Edge of Yonder” leaves us, like a dream in which there is not enough at stake. *