“Everyone,” he says, relighting his cigar, “talks about . . . lessons of history when what they really mean are”—he seems to ponder the cigar a moment—“auditions of history. History always auditioning for one last performance that’s never delivered because it’s always rewritten. To, uh, talk of the “lessons” of history suggests . . . models that can be applied to other instances, when no moment really is enough like another that any model applies, without turning the model into something that’s so much something else as to make it, well, not obsolete, but not all that relevant either.”
The scene is 1968, in a party at Andy Warhol’s Factory. The speaker, moments before he is shot and killed by Valerie Solanas, is a one-time senator and failed presidential candidate called Jack Kennedy. The person he’s speaking to, who doesn’t understand a word he is saying, is Jesse Garon Presley, a would-be jazz critic whose younger twin brother, Elvis Aron, died at birth.
This, as you might gather, is not the history we are familiar with. But then, it is a novel by Steve Erickson, so it was never going to be.
For Erickson, history is forever failing the audition. Or perhaps more specifically, America is failing the audition. Because America was born on a promise it has never fulfilled; it is a myth that can never become reality until it has put right all of the wrongs caused by that failure. The great southern novelist and Civil War historian, Shelby Foote, once quoted a southern senator on the eve of the Civil War who predicted that the effusion of blood occasioned by secession would be mopped up with a single pocket handkerchief. It would be an interesting PhD thesis, Foote mused, to calculate how many pocket handkerchiefs would be needed to mop up all of the blood actually spilled. Steve Erickson, I sometimes think, is engaged in stitching together all of those bloody handkerchiefs to create a map of his country’s history, and its failings.
Shadowbahn is Erickson’s twelfth book; he has previously published ten novels and two supposed non-fictions, journalistic accounts of presidential elections that each engage with such flights of fancy that they merge seamlessly with his fictions. Though all of these are individual works, they echo and intersect with each other in curious and interesting ways. The two realities in Rubicon Beach (1986), America 1 and America 2, for example, become in Amnesiascope (1996) the fires that surround Los Angeles, dividing the city into different time zones. Or there is the way that the blueprint of the twentieth century in Tours of the Black Clock (1989), and a hidden date on the calendar at the heart of The Sea Came in at Midnight (1999), both reveal the soul of those hundred damaged years.
I mention these two particular examples from the myriad intersections that crisscross Erickson’s work only because faint echoes of both recur in this new novel. If it is impossible to speak about any Steve Erickson novel without reference to all of the others, there are still distinctive features in this book. The shift in time is signalled, for instance, on the very first page when a truck driver crossing the Badlands of Dakota on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 happens upon the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Later we learn that the towers will manifest in a similar way in unlikely settings every twenty years, complete and undamaged, a physical representation of the most recent myth of America. But, as ever, it is a myth that damages more than it heals; the twin towers, in their unlikely reappearance as much as in their absence, are a moral and emotional hole torn in the American psyche. The World Trade Center, which also features significantly in Our Ecstatic Days (2005), is a symbol of the fact that America can be no more healed in the 21st century than it could be in the 20th.
Always in Erickson’s novels America is presented as a place of myths, a land of flawed heroes (Robert Kennedy and Thomas Jefferson, for example, feature regularly in his work) whose very flaws prevent the healing that is supposed to resolve all mythic tales. But then, healing is impossible because the mythic landscape of America can never be whole; there is a hole in its very soul that Erickson continually identifies and probes and explores. Sometimes the hole is literal, as in Our Ecstatic Days, in which it threads as a typographical distortion from the beginning of the novel to its very end. More often it manifests as a break in reality, a fracture in the structure of the world, an ulcer in the soft tissue of our perceptions. This break can take many forms, sometimes within the same work: Erickson is nothing if not generous with the profusion of mind games that twist their way through his novels. There is an impossibility, there is an uncanny doubling, there is coincidence piled upon coincidence, there is an irruption of the supernatural (the vivid blue eyes that recur throughout Days Between Stations (1985), the music that emanates from Sheba in These Dreams of You (2012)), or more often a shift into an alternate reality or a future time, something that has featured in such varied novels as Tours of the Black Clock, Arc d’X (1993), The Sea Came in at Midnight, Our Ecstatic Days and now again in Shadowbahn.
We watch in this latest novel as crowds flock in from across America to witness the surprising manifestation of the twin towers; we follow the local sheriff as she is reluctantly sent to investigate the buildings and takes the opportunity to slip away unseen into a new life, leaving everyone to assume that the towers ate her; we listen to the ethereal music that seems to flood out of the towers; yet the World Trade Center is not the subject of this novel, merely its instigation. Through all of this, it is actually the music that the towers emit that gets us closest to the heart of the novel. In recent novels, Erickson has started writing about American culture as though it were also the American soul: movies in Zeroville (2007), but more significantly music in both These Dreams of You and Shadowbahn.
The towers that reappear in the Dakotas are not as empty as they appear. High on the ninety-third floor of one of the towers, Jesse Presley comes to awareness. There, stretched out on an office desk, constantly imagining that he sees out of the corner of his eye a plane coming towards him, Jesse begins to recall the life that, before that moment, he had never actually lived. In this new world that is suddenly imagining itself into existence, there was no Elvis Presley, and Jesse himself cannot sing—and so cannot fill the hole that has now opened in the American cultural soul. In this novel Elvis assumes the mantle of mythic hero previously worn by Thomas Jefferson and Robert Kennedy (who does appear in the book); and yet Elvis, the mythic hero, is forever absent from the text.
Of course, the absence of Elvis has profound cultural implications far beyond America alone. In previous novels, such as Days Between Stations, Tours of the Black Clock and Arc d’X, Erickson has shown the rest of the world being distorted and damaged by America’s moral failure, and we get the same here. In the mid-1960s, Jesse tries to make a career writing for a jazz magazine, for jazz has never been ousted from its cultural dominance by the upstart rock ‘n’ roll. Idiosyncratically, he chooses to write about a little-known and short-lived British quintet, the Silver Beatles, who went against the musical norm (“playing this colored American music”) and failed because Elvis had not paved the way. Following the break-up of the group, James Paul had been assassinated, while Winston O’Boogie (John) had become ever more bitter and disillusioned. Jesse’s article is wild, impassioned, highly personal, and is considered quite mad by the magazine. In Jesse’s writing we see repeated attempts to reach across to the world that was lost by his own birth; but although Winston and Jack Kennedy tell him as much, he is unable to see that he himself is the locus of this disorder in the universe, and so his attempts are inevitably doomed to failure.
Meanwhile, in another strand of the novel, we follow Parker and Zema, who was once known as Sheba, as they drive across country towards the twin towers. Parker and Sheba, the children at the heart of These Dreams of You, are now older, but as close as ever; the country they pass through, on the other hand, is more divided than ever. The novel was presumably written before the election of Donald Trump, but it is written with a startling awareness of the divisions he embodies—although these are, at the same time, divisions that have haunted Erickson’s work throughout his career. Here, for instance, Parker and Zema cross from America 1 to America 2, recalling the sundered nation of that second novel, Rubicon Beach. The divisions are personally dangerous for the siblings, of course, since Parker is white while Zema, adopted from Ethiopia, is black. But racism, while it is the surface symptom of the fatal flaw in the American soul that Erickson has repeatedly described, is only a part of the divisions they encounter.
As they travel, of course, they listen to music, a playlist compiled by their now-dead father, a failed novelist and one-time DJ. The novel includes the playlist, a variety of pop and rock that keeps returning to the blues, and also includes the father’s notes on a number of the tracks, invariably concentrating on relatively little-known blues and soul records. But as Parker and Zema drive, music disappears from the rest of the country, as if the sounds emanating from the revenant twin towers are simultaneously leeching music away from everywhere else.
And remember: for Erickson music is the embodiment of the American soul. Like the World Trade Center, however, Zema also has the strange supernatural ability to exude music, a talent we are already familiar with from These Dreams of You, and so, isolated within their car, Parker and Zema remain largely ignorant of the silence spreading outside. When they stop, nervously, in isolated communities in America 2, the sorts of places that stereotypically exude hostility towards blacks and outsiders, the menace is still very definitely there, but it has transmuted into a desperate hunger for the music that Zema represents.
Like most of Erickson’s work, Shadowbahn plays with structure and format. Most of the novel consists of one-page chapters composed of just two paragraphs each, but there are also chapters set in two columns, there are lists, there are passages set on a narrow measure in the middle of the page, all of which keeps you conscious of the act of reading. But what you are reading is easy and engaging and hypnotic, a wild and inventive ride set to the raucous beat of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a novel of despair, of course, because in everything he writes Erickson’s eye is caught by images that reveal those moral flaws and emotional failures of his country. But the music is still there—this is a novel of shadows, but the title also contains an echo of “Shenandoah,” the old song that recurs like a talisman throughout the book—and where there is music there is soul and hope. America will not, cannot, heal; but there is still hope.