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Review: America is disintegrating, reality is fracturing, all to a classic soundtrack in Steve Erickson’s ‘Shadowbahn’

Steve Erickson
Steve Erickson’s new novel is “Shadowbahn”
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Steve Erickson was post-millennial long before the millennium ever got here. Like those of a Southern California Ballard or Beckett, his novels are filled with a wide variety of end of time-like calamities, both personal and political:  suicide cults, alternate-history Hitlers, urban conflagrations, unpredictable weather storms and — most terrifying of all — the endlessly recurring (and continually unbelievable) presidential election cycle. Over several decades of feverish literary production (his first novel, the absorbingly recursive “Days Between Stations,” was published in 1985), he has written consistently and obsessively about people seeking a way out of their own cultural history. Sometimes they’re successful; sometimes they’re not. But one way or another, as soon as they wake up the next morning, they’re lost.

In “Tours of the Black Clock” (1989), Hitler’s private pornographer (who may be a ghost) devises movie scenarios that influence the Third Reich into nonexistence. In “Arc d’X” (1993), Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings, is raised among the still-circulating ashes of a slave who was  burned at the stake several generations before she was born, eventually fleeing into a future universe presided over by cops, theocrats and librarians. In 1996’s “Amnesiascope” (my favorite), an Erickson-like novelist tries to survive the endless serial catastrophes of Los Angeles — including (but not limited to) fires, floods, forgetfulness and beautiful women. And in his best-known novel, “Zeroville” (2007), a film-obsessed autistic man undertakes a “Blowup”-style search for meaning through the movies he loves — from Victor Fleming’s “Joan of Arc” to Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” —  until he vanishes into his own montage.

As in “Zeroville,” the act of emerging from (and vanishing into) nothingness is the primary narrative event of Erickson’s 11th book, “Shadowbahn.” Set in his  favorite historical period (one that hasn’t quite happened yet),  the novel opens when a truck driver named Aaron (having lost his wallet, he is a “driver without an identity”) witnesses the sudden, miraculous manifestation of the twin towers somewhere off Interstate 90 in the Badlands of South Dakota.  It’s a time when America is breaking down into competitive regions of Rupture, Disunion and more, since “no one believes in the same country anymore and probably never has.” Haunted by the specter of a voiceless black president, variously untethered Americans (immigrants and natives, blacks and whites, Mormons and Sunnis) are quickly drawn together to witness this image of what they once were, what they’ve lost and what they may never have again. Which, of course, is having one country that belongs to all of them.

Steve Erickson was post-millennial long before the millennium ever got here.
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There are many protagonists in this complex, multi-perspective novel of looping realities, and they are laid out across multiple time streams, but the central protagonists are two teenagers who embody what’s left of our endangered American ideals: Parker, the son of an eminently forgotten novelist, and Zema, his adopted Ethiopian-born younger sister. When they divert their western journey to visit the towers, they find themselves lost on a “secret highway” known as the “ ‘shadowbahn’ that cuts through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity.” This secret road takes them through the heart of what’s left of America — and what’s left of America, it turns out, may be only whatever music Parker and Zema carry with them in their car, assembled in lengthy playlists by their eclectic father.  Meanwhile, overwhelmed by a “mass of harmonics” initiated by the twin towers:

All the other music had vanished from the airwaves, vaporized mid-transmission like mist burned away by the sun.  Music has gone missing from files and discs and vinyl, from cells and MP3 players and whatever CD players anyone still plays.  It’s missing from the confines of every interior, from the expanse of every exterior — all the music but Parker and Zema’s silver Camry hybrid singing, Here come the planes.

It’s the sort of Möbius-looping dimensional irony that drives much of Erickson’s fiction: a Laurie Anderson tune (“O Superman”) from 1981 alerting the world to an event that hasn’t happened yet, and still replaying several decades after it has already happened. In a typical Erickson novel, continuum is everything. And summary isn’t easy to do when dealing with a universe where the apocalypse has almost always already happened and will probably happen very soon again. In other words, the apocalypse doesn’t need to be televised. We already saw the movie.

Meanwhile, inside the twin towers, ghosts from alternate cultural realities start to rouse, assemble and find their way outside. First, there’s Jesse  Garon Presley, Elvis’ twin brother who died at birth; in the “hush vortex” created by the twin towers, it is now his turn to live, while the original Elvis vanishes with his music into Warhol’s silk-screened images at a druggy circa ’60s Factory party.  Jack Kennedy rolls aimlessly around in a wheelchair; Sun Records disappears, only to be replaced by “Luna Recording”; and John Lennon is resurrected under the name of his own pseudonymous creation — Dr. Winston O’Boogie, only to become a cartoonist, a critic for a jazz magazine and finally a doorman at a Manhattan apartment building. It’s a constantly multiplying world of reflections where everybody seems to be merging into everybody else, and where nobody learns “lessons” from history, since, as Kennedy explains,  there are only “auditions of history,” the endless preparation everybody makes for “one last performance that’s never delivered because it’s always rewritten.” Iterations of half-truths abound. Truth — not so much so.  It’s still America, after all.

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And while Parker and Zema drive — and realities multiply — the music of America plays on:  Ellington and the Beach Boys, Miles Davis and the Ramones, Coleman Hawkins and the Temptations, Glen Campbell and Blind Willie McTell. After all, you can’t go on a journey without taking along a decent soundtrack; and sometimes — especially for the protagonists of this novel — a soundtrack is the only worthwhile journey worth taking. “SAVE AMERICA FROM ITSELF,” one of the bumper stickers in this book reads. If, we might add, there’s still time.

Even when it’s hard to follow, “Shadowbahn” grabs hold of its narrative idea early and never lets it go. Lacking the emotional focus of previous Erickson books, its central characters, especially Parker and Zema, sometimes get lost in the wide sweeps of history and counter-history; but the book’s driving argument never loses control of the wheel, and never stops asking: How can any one region of a country this vast and interdependent ever claim precedence over any other region — or any other form of music? Answer: They can’t. And if anybody claims to own the copyright on “America,” they should lay down their weapons, their flags and their legal summonses and instead familiarize themselves with the musician who recorded “West End Blues” in June 1928. Louis Armstrong, of course. And without him (and other musicians like him), the song of America wouldn’t be worth the paper it was printed on.

While “Shadowbahn” is a more complicated (and sometimes more interesting) novel than Erickson’s previous ones, its concerns are as genuine as its characters — believable people traveling through a degenerating political landscape while trying to remember how they got to where they are before they reach the end of the road. In some ways, it could be called a “prescient” book (if “prescient” means anything in Erickson’s universe, which it doesn’t.)  For in “Shadowbahn,” there’s no way to escape the world one is born into, or to avoid the final horrors it has in store for us. 

Bradfield’s latest novel is “Dazzle Resplendent:  Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”

“Shadowbahn” by Steve Erickson
"Shadowbahn" by Steve Erickson
(Blue Rider Press)

Shadowbahn

Steve Erickson

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Blue Rider Press: 320 pp., $27


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