Date started: April 22nd
Date finished: April 30th
I try to leave cursing out of these reviews, but after finishing American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett, that was my simple, honest reaction. Holy shit. It’s the first time I’ve had such a strong reaction to anything since I read The Scar by China Mieville (my favourite ever novel) over a year ago.
American Elsewhere is the story of Mona Bright, a cop from Texas. After the deaths of her parents, she finds out she has inherited her mother’s old house in Wink, New Mexico, a perfect town that doesn’t exist on any maps, resides under a strange pink moon, and where the people are afraid to leave their homes at night. It’s a seemingly idyllic small American town, concealing more secrets than can logically fit into a single story.
And really, to give any more away would be doing it a disservice. The problem is, on typing out that vague outline, the setup sounds rather generic. The book on the other hand, is anything but. The plot I described above is maybe the first thirty to fifty pages, of close to 700 total. This book is huge, and encompasses genres from pulp sci-fi, elements of hard sci-fi, fantasy, murder mystery, Lovecraftian horror, and more.
With all these disparate elements, it would have been very easy for the whole thing to be an inscrutable mess. Fortunately, the plotting and editing is tight enough to keep it all in check. The revelations come in at a solid pace, and are handled with grace, while the rest of the story is split well between action and more subtle character moments.
Despite everything else going on, it was the characters that brought the whole thing together for me. Mona is a strong lead from the start, proactive in solving her problems, and she only gets stronger as the gaps in her past are filled in during the latter parts of the story. Interestingly, the book seems to work to keep the reader at arm’s length from her at all times, though I felt this was a metafictional way of handling her trait of mistrusting others. Either way, it works. It left me clamouring for any hint of who she was, even as I admired her other traits, and the book delivered in a big way on this front in the latter half.
Really though, it’s the other characters inhabiting the town that are the highlights. They are all enigmatic in their own ways, and range from sweet and funny (Mrs Benjamin, Mr Parson), to filling me with a sort of creeping dread whenever they were on the page (the Ganymede). Topping it off, there are another set of characters involved on the periphery, with their parts to play. They work as antagonists, even if I found them too likable in their own way to fall fully into villain territory for me. They are Bolan and his crew of misfits, operating a heroin smuggling ring in a Roadhouse just outside of Wink.
Truth be told, there’s a fair element of One Eyed Jack’s from Twin Peaks in relation to the Roadhouse plot line. The Twin Peaks feel is a tone that carries throughout the rest of the story. Small town America, a murder, weird goings on. It really all feels like Stephen King wrote an episode of Twin Peaks. With a dash of Twilight Zone. And some Lovecraft input.
It’s honestly just hard to explain why I loved American Elsewhere so much without sounding like I’m gushing. I don’t have an official list to hand, but I’m fairly confident it will be somewhere on my top ten books list, perhaps even top five. I know I’ve been a bit nebulous and vague about it, but that’s because if you’re going to read American Elsewhere, you need to go in with as few spoilers as possible. And if you’re at all interested in supernatural American novels, American Elsewhere is an absolute must read.
Further adventures in science fiction Book Reviews: