A secret rural community built around a government laboratory, an impossible murder of a town leader, and a newly arrived ex-cop searching for her roots — it sounds like the set-up for any number of mysteries or thrillers. But in American Elsewhere, Robert Jackson uses them to weave a story about the American Dream.
Top Image via Robert Jackson Bennett's blog
In Bennett's standalone novel, Mona Bright is an ex-cop who learns that her long dead mother has left her a house in Wink, New Mexico. Wink isn’t on any map, but Mona pieces together some geographical information and the name Coburn Laboratory to find the place. And it turns out her mother, Laura Alvarez, has left more than a house: She was a quantum physicist at the lab, one of the top in her field. This does not mesh with Mona’s memories of her fragile, disturbed mother, from before she killed herself.
But this mystery, Who was Laura Alvarez?, pales at the strangeness of Wink. A desert town with perfectly manicured lawns, out-of-date television programming, and 1950s mores. The women wear aprons, there’s a town hall basement filled with taxidermied deer heads, and a monument to a lightning strike that scarred the town. But Mona has been looking for a home, a place to start over, and she initially finds the place charming. The fact that no one remembers her mother, or at least everyone says they don’t, is the strangest thing she finds in her first few days in Wink. But Wink, with its impossible mirrors and bizarre tea cupboards, soon reveals that it is stranger than Mona could have imagined.
Mona’s a strong character, whose search for her mother drives the story. Bennett captures Mona’s griefs and various strengths, in a believable way. In fact, most of his female characters are well written. Gracie Zuela is a teenager who's more wrapped up in the strangeness of Wink than most. She combines resignation and yearning in the manner of many small-town teenagers, but the causes are different. Even characters we barely meet for a scene or two stand out. The stories of trapped housewife Margaret Baugh, or Megan Twohey, a little girl with a secret friend in the woods, capture a feeling of circumscribed lives and unspoken rules.
The book is science fiction, but has at least a splash of horror, unsurprising for a novel by a Shirley Jackson Award winner. Horror is a deeply subjective genre – second only to erotica – and I’m not particularly put out by tentacular grotesques or things that go chitter in the night. Or rabbits. Those who find their nightmares haunted by the chitinous or oozing, may find the horror more pronounced. But in any case, these things are pressed up against more suburban horrors: the desperate need to keep up appearances, a stifling marriage, parents who sacrifice their children for the protection of a powerful patron. It’s the combination of the two, the mundane and the Lovecraftian that give the book an unease that seems to radiate from the pages.
American Elsewhere isn’t just a walk through the shadow of the valley of the uncanny. There are action scenes where Barrett lovingly describes both the guns and the tactics. There is a scene near the middle of the book in which someone explains the history of Wink to Mona that is so wildly absurd, charming and surprising that it alone makes me want to read more of Bennett’s books. Some will find the conceit silly, but there’s humor in the book and Bennett’s willing to play with it when others would not.
The book is occasionally slow, mostly due to the fact that the reader and Mona are on different timelines of discovering what’s wrong with Wink. Waiting for her to catch up sometimes allows the reader to drop in on more characters, but sometimes it’s just waiting. The end was far more explosive and cinematic – though just as heartrending – than I expected from the beginning of the book, but the fates of several characters were left hanging. And not in an open way, more in a "we forgot about them" way. I also would have liked more of the story of Laura Alvarez. It’s hard enough to be a research scientist at her level, but to be female and Latina and wildly successful in the early 1980s suggests a story I’d like more of.
Overall, Bennett has created a strange world, populated with fascinating characters. The universality of feeling, of loss and love even when twisted through time or unfathomable minds, stands out more than the horror, though more readers will probably pick it up for the tentacles. Which are pretty good too.