Orbit, February 2013
Trade Paperback, 688 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-316- 2002-0-2
Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Orbit Books
A woman’s father dies and she learns of a house she inherited in the so-remote-it-is-barely-on-any-maps town of Wink, New Mexico. The house was her mother’s long before mother married father. The woman is Mona and the mother is Laura and the past is a malleable thing in Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere, an unsettling look at a small town that hides many secrets both large and intimate with Mona’s present at the intersection of the two.
After some getting to know Mona before she makes her journey to Wink, and a very creepy prologue, Bennett’s narrative takes hold and allows readers a peek into the window of a nearly perfect Small Town, USA. Mona arrives in Wink as a funeral is being held, which is not the most welcoming event to a new visitor but which also sets the tone for the novel. Of course Wink is not really normal in any fashion other than the most superficial. Posited in a canyon which is overlooked by Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory, much of Wink’s population was a support town for the lab. In a sense, think of the town Indiana Jones stumbles into in the otherwise laughable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls – Wink is a town frozen in time with the most up-to-date connection to the outside world the 1980s sitcoms broadcast on their televisions.
As Mona becomes more entrenched in the town of Wink, more questions arise about the nature of its residents and relation to Coburn. Questions many residents don’t answer. The most baffling of these unanswered questions involve Mona’s mother Laura for Mona’s only strong memory of Laura is of her mother’s death. Why was Laura so unhappy at the end? How involved was Laura in the research at Coburn? Why does nobody in Wink remember her mother, or admit to remembering Mona’s mother even in the face of photographic evidence of Laura interacting with Wink’s residence? Why are the residents of Wink so hesitant to move beyond certain borders of the town? What was going on at the Coburn Lab and Observatory?
Bennett raises a lot of questions in the novel and the answers the characters provide are discovered through a narrative that is, for the most part, taut and flavored with unsettling and creepy scenes. Two primary mysteries plague Mona (and the reader) throughout the narrative – who was Laura and what was the nature of Coburn’s research? Mona’s discovery of those two things and how they relate to each other is filled with dread and some otherworldly elements that would fit right at home in an H.P. Lovecraft story, a Stephen King novel, or something in one of Neil Gaiman’s various invented worlds.
The Troupe, Robert Jackson Bennett’s previous novel, was my favorite novel published last year (2012) and a novel that is becoming an all-time favorite as I consider its impact on me against the other books I’ve read over the course of my life. That’s sort of a long way of stating that American Elsewhere was saddled with very high expectations. Parts of American Elsewhere were stronger (the subtle, hinted at dread and disquieting feeling Bennett evoked) while other parts I felt the novel wandered a bit from where it was strongest specifically a few of the random chapters focusing on residents of Wink seemingly unconnected from Mona’s central voyage of discovery. Though those chapters/passages give a larger scale picture of the oddity that is the town of Wink and its inhabitants, for me, they were more of a distraction from the more powerful aspects of the novel.
One of Bennett’s two-fold strengths are his believable characters and his slow breaking down of who they thought they were. Mona thinks herself the child of an abusive father with an absent mother, a woman with a tough exterior and a drifter. Though those exterior characteristics do define her, her journey in American Elsewhere, not unlike George’s journey in The Troupe, leads her to discover the truth about her origins she could not otherwise conceive. Along with the characters, Bennett builds a great sense of place – the locations his characters inhabit become characters in and of themselves. Wink is a powerfully, magnetic place that is greater than the sum of its parts. Bennett’s powerful sense of place could also be considered world-building to throw a phrase more readily associated with Epic Fantasy. Lastly, Bennett’s seamless melding of genre flavors into a unique stew of its own is as much on display here as it was in The Troupe – American Elsewhere is part anti-bildungsroman, part horror, with elements of science fiction tossed in for good measure.
Although I found The Troupe to be a stronger novel, American Elsewhere is also a superb novel in and of its own merits. The unsettling moments and possibilities hinted at in this novel have me excited to read more of Bennett’s work.
© 2013 Rob H. Bedford