Sunday, October 21, 2007

Spaceman Blues

Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blues. is, well, an experience. It has to do with events immediately leading up to and including an alien takeover of New York City. It's not a book with much in the way of redeeming social value, and I can't say that it addresses anything in the way of deep philosophical issues, but if it's a ride you're looking for, Bucko, have I got a ride for you. Slattery is an impresario of the imagination, or, as James Taylor might have it, a churning urn of burning funk. Here, for example, is a passage from chapter one. A character of some notoriety, one Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez, has disappeared, and his living quarters have exploded, and the word is getting out:
The news spreads in a widening circle of shock, people are talking about it up and down the street, voices crackle across the air and over wires. He's gone, he's gone, it goes in letters, in words flashing across flickering screens, it is written by planes in the sky. It spreads from the city and moves to the end of Long Island, into New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate, across New England; it moves across the continent over the miles of thrashing grain, the ragged heights of the Rockies, down into the deserts and dense forests and to the opposite shore, where men hear it on shortwave radios at the place where the Mexican border falls into the Pacific Ocean, and the waves roll in gigantic and break against the rocks and sand with a force that ensures compliance. It passes along the piers of Eastern Europe, syllables slipped between knife points and rusting rifles; on the shores of Angola they wail at the ocean, beat their feet into the sand, turn back toward crumbling cities. The news burns bodies in the Bronx, things are cast adrift in the deep water of the East River, people depart into the sky, there are meetings in drainage systems, encoded signals broadcast in the flight patterns of birds, machines stir, motors grind into action at frequencies only subterranean people can feel. And people begin to congregate in the places that Manuel loved. They want to know what happened, they want to understand, but being the kind of people they are, all that wanting turns into partying. In Astoria, Egypt Cafe is jammed to the ceiling, people walk over other people to get inside, they spill out onto the street in front of the laundromat, they raid the delis and liquor stores and close down Steinway, they make a party so big that the police see it and just throw up their hands, set up roadblocks, join in when they get off duty. At the Maritime Lounge in Red Hook, some Congolese soukous band appears out of nowhere and plays for two days straight, they have to coat their fingers with glue in between numbers to keep the skin on, and the crowd crashes in and chokes on seven different kinds of smoke and laughter, they pour beer and whiskey all over each other and dance to break floorboards. The place runs out of alcohol after eighteen hours but people keep bringing in more, they toast Manuel again and again, wish to God you were still here. They end up in the water of the harbor, holding their drinks high and setting them on fire until the end of the second day rolls by and they go to sleep in the street, they crawl home in a blind drag. They pass out in subway cars, they wake up feeling like their brains are cut in half. They go home in pairs and wake up naked with each other, their furniture upended, dishes broken, sheets ripped into long shreds, clothes plastered somehow to the ceiling. (8-9)
The passage gives some sense of the hyperbolic intensity, the syntactical exuberance, the sheer delight in the rhetoric of enumeration that carries the narrative all the way through the book. I've been re-reading On the Road recently as well, and often found myself thinking of Kerouac, and of Whitman, as I read Spaceman Blues. Slattery's prose is jazzy, lyrical, bursting at the seams. Later in chapter one, for example, a party jumps into third gear with the arrival of the band, whose name and methodology are apt analogues for Slattery's preferred method of composition:

The Pan-Galactic Groove Squad crashes through the window at eleven-thirty to claps and cheers and stomping feet; there are twenty-seven of them in this band, they have guitars and basses, keyboards, accordions, horns, banjos, and drums, so many drums, and they set up in no time and begin to play, a beat that starts down low and simple, just the kick and some hi-hat with one bass snaking around it. The rest of the band waits, they're letting the groove get in the pocket, hit bottom. It does; and now two drummers join in, they weave a polyrhythm that brings in one guitar and some pops from a banjo, oh this groove is young but it's growing, and people are starting to move. Now a singer steps up to the mike, puts out some blues that two more singers turn to gospel, harmonies deep and wide that make you want to believe. Five more drummers slip their way into the spaces, two guitars, another bass, a single trumpet line, simple and urgent, and those singers are swelling up, they're filling the groove to bursting, and just when nobody can take another second, they break it open in an explosion of horns and keyboards and shouting strings. The people open up their throats and sing, and everybody screams and throws their hands in the air, they're falling in and stomping it down, sweating and throwing back their heads until they are bound together, band and dancers, into a single thing, and this is a party not even the Hand of the Righteous could stop, it is loud and large and full of joy; and then Wendell steps into the room. (25)
Wendell is Wendell Apogee, the book's main character, who, it turns out, is not only the lover of Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez—the book is in large part a quest story, as Wendell seeks to find out where Manual has disappeared to—but also one of the particular targets of the space invaders. His life is all too frequently interrupted by moments like this:

From Wendell’s window come flashes of green and purple light, scuttles and shrieks. Then a howl that sets the dogs barking for blocks, cats fighting and mating in the alleys to ripping each other to pieces. A glow grows, phasing from blue to orange, and with a scream that breaks glass, the window frames shatter outward and four shapes in purple raincoats fly out, mounted on tiny hovering scooters that emanate a fine red mist. They wheel around each other and then shoot off down the canyon of air between the buildings to lift off into the sky; seconds later, an explosion fires from the ruined wall, the flames leap across the street and warp the glass of the apartments on the other side. Wendell’s apartment is then a smoking hole, gaped at by neighbors, the tatters of his possessions snowing into the street: the limbs of furniture, cushion fluff, and books, hundreds of books burning and flopping to the ground, trailing fire and ash. (63)
You have probably noticed there seem to be a lot of explosions in this narrative. Slattery's story thrives on mayhem, and the tonality is that of apocalyptic glee.

There is one more sequence which I cannot resist citing: a description of the mechanics of Darktown, a whole and wholely imagined city underneath the streets and sewers of the Big Apple. It's an audacious act of the imagination carried off with Slattery's characteristic offhanded wizardry:

Catwalks and narrow metal stairs sway and tangle, metal shacks and globular houses hang suspended in the air, floating bars and restaurants throw out heat and steam, thousands of people climb with bundles on their backs and lights lashed to their heads, shouts and whistles fly across the space, animals scramble amok, babies scream, a riot of music threatens to resolve into a deep, smoky rhythm that shudders and moans. High above, the exposed pipes of the city heating system lance along the cavern ceiling, spouting steam. The belly of a subway tunnel shifts as the train rattles by, looses a film of dust that falls through all this, settling on the heads of the multitude, sprinkling through the latticework to rest, at last, on the water below that teems with boats, people rowing, trundling away with grunting engines. They’re selling things from Bangladesh and Brazil, they the teeth of a hundred beasts not yet named, they have rice cookers and machine guns, blowtorches and flares. It smells of fish, oil, and burnt electrical wire, a scent that trails through the people and the light and sounds, to the arms of the city they can only see as a group of yellow lights, like the shine of dull suns in constellation, dim but carrying for miles. (81)

If the genius is in the details, then I guess Slattery is some kind of genius. His sentences are concatenations of details in compelling configurations: rice cookers and machine guns, blowtorches and flares. I often found myself laughing out loud, not so much at what was being said, but at the zest and spirit with which it was being delivered. Check it out.

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