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Here’s how you make a myth: Describe how heart-stoppingly overwhelming a place is, then introduce somebody capable of controlling it. In antiquity, all manner of gods and galley ships were required to get that job done; by the end of the 19th century, Huck Finn launching a raft down the Mississippi was plenty. Ever since Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published in 1957, the road story has been the preferred American myth, and Rudolph Wurlitzer knows road stories: Though he’s written five novels, he’s probably best known as the screenwriter of the 1971 cult film Two-Lane Blacktop, an inheritor to Easy Rider that revised the idea of Manifest Destiny to include two guys in a ’55 Chevy purring across the rural landscape.
Wurlitzer’s version of the road myth resembled a lot of Beat-era tales: You had no idea where you were going and weren’t always having a lot of fun, but at least you were moving—the movement itself a character-building exercise. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, the stars of Two-Lane Blacktop, are so stone-faced and archetypal they don’t even have names; they’re the Driver and the Mechanic, and they passive-aggressively court a Girl. Wurlitzer had less success applying the Beat sensibility to his screenplay for the 1987 Walker, which starred Ed Harris as a would-be imperialist in 19th-century Nicaragua. Alex Cox’s film was too sloppy to work as a satire of Reagan-era military adventures in Central America, but it underlined Wurlitzer’s belief that the idea of humble American rugged individualism is hogwash—we do all this running around not for spiritual enlightenment but as a means to control.
Wurlitzer’s new novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder, is an inheritor to those stories; indeed, it was initially written as a screenplay, and Walker is briefly mentioned in its pages. The script moved around Hollywood for decades, but it’s hard to imagine it ever getting filmed; it’d require Bruckheimer-level financing to make but doesn’t have its morals in apple-pie order. It’s a sprawling picaresque tale, set sometime around the Civil War, moving in a roughly circular fashion from the mountains of the Southwest to Mexico through Panama and finally up to California gold country. It’s a bit of a mess, but like most picaresque, mythic stories, it ought to be—its chief strength is its steady accrual of detail and mileage. And in his hero, Zebulon Shook, Wurlitzer has invented a funny, acerbic, hugely compelling representative of American heroism; the conqueror as stumblebum.
Shook is a solitary Arizona trapper who in the early chapters of the novel travels with his brother, Hatchet Jack, to meet his mother up north. The pages are a jamboree of Western clichés; Dad’s a drifter, Hatchet Jack isn’t a blood relative but was won in a poker game, and Ma and Shook shoot up a trading post that low-balls on pelts, hollering together, “Hurrah fer mountain doin’s!” When Ma winds up dead, Shook skips town, surviving in a way that suggests that getting ahead in the West is mainly a matter of dumb luck. He goes to Mexico, Wurlitzer writes, “with a pause in Alamogordo long enough to hold up the town bank—an act that he performed with such careless disregard for his own safety that he not only escaped without a scratch, but with half a saddlebag of gold coins.”
There’s plenty of action in the chapters that follow, though Shook’s identity becomes no clearer. He falls for a girl in a bar, sees a bet that he’ll never arrive in San Francisco, wins passage across Panama in a billiard game, cheats death by hanging, winds up on a prison ship, gets into fistfights—and so on. There’s a making-it-up-as-he-goes-along feel to the story, but what sustains it in part is Wurlitzer’s eye for ironic humor in nearly every absurd incident; for instance, when his beloved Delilah falls overboard, Shook dives in to save her, but because he can’t swim she has to save him. More compelling—and more convincing that Wurlitzer knows what he’s doing—is the way a legend slowly grows around Shook. On a ship headed from the Gulf of Mexico to California he meets a reporter, Artemis Stebbins, to whom he spins a few tales of derring-do. When the two meet again in San Francisco months later, Shook has become, to the public mind, a merger of Paul Bunyan and Jesse James, with a $500 bounty on his head to boot. That’s all Stebbins’ doing: “I’m here to satisfy the public’s insatiable hunger and curiosity for frontier lore. And you, my friend, rank with the very best, thanks to my adventurously inflated prose.” By the novel’s final pages, Shook’s reality has merged with his myth—toward the end a prison buddy unveils a mural detailing all the amazing deeds Shook didn’t do. It’s in a bar in a town that’s been renamed Shooksville.
There’s evidence throughout The Drop Edge of Yonder that it was once a hacky screenplay. At one point Shook looks at himself in a mirror and then shoots it—the Old Crow of identity-crisis imagery—and not only does one man tell him “I’ll see you in hell,” he responds by saying, “I’m already in hell.” But this is that rare story that improves as it expands, not unlike another rambling picaresque, Don Quixote. And like that knight-errant, he’s just a confused wanderer. As a man tells him in San Francisco, rightly predicting his future: “You’ll always be on the move, trying to find out who you are. Like the rest of this crazy country.”
Willy Vlautin’s second novel, Northline, is also a travelogue focused on the West, though geographically its turf is much more narrow. Its heroine moves only from Las Vegas to Reno, and there’s nothing especially noble about her. She’s a woman in her early 20s who drinks too much and dates an abusive jackass who’s big on the white-power group the World Church of the Creator; Dad’s run off, her mother spends her days sucking down beer and Marlboros in front of the TV, and her sister’s biggest recent accomplishment is getting her nipples pierced.
There’s a term for a young woman like this, and it’s white trash; she’s so closed off from how the world functions that the closest thing she has to moral guidance is Paul Newman, who appears in her imagination to deliver tough-love lectures about her fuckups. Vlautin is careful not to pass judgment on her, though, and while it’s clear he’s full of sympathy for her he’s careful about how he dispenses it. He prefers description to complex analysis, and his prose moves as simple and straight as a pebble skipping across a pond. That’s scored him comparisons to simple-as-dirt stylists like John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver, but his writing bears a closer resemblance to country songwriters like Tom T. Hall or Harlan Howard, guys who trade in essentialized but detail-rich storytelling. (Vlautin leads a Portland country-rock band, Richmond Fontaine, and the first edition of Northline includes a CD of his ruminative, twangy incidental music.)
His writing is so restrained, in fact, that a simple plot turn becomes a Dorothy-in-Oz event. A fourth of the way through the novel, she’s abandoned by her boyfriend at a racist skinhead punk show in the desert. Left to fend for herself, there’s a palpable sense that while she’s in a mess (she’s also pregnant), options are available to her; to stress that point, Vlautin only discloses her name, Allison Johnson, after she hitches a ride with a trucker and begins to plot her exodus.
Northline is largely the story of Allison’s rehabilitation. She gives the baby up for adoption, scores steady work, survives a rape, and attempts to quit both drinking and crummy men, trading in Cool Hand Luke for a decent fella with a pulse and a manageable amount of baggage. In the process, a whole host of characters surround Allison, and the novel is mainly enlivened by the stories they tell about themselves. As a waitress, she catches a lot of them—truck drivers, gamblers, and, best-drawn among them, Penny, a grossly overweight divorcée charged with dispatching vacuum cleaner salesmen. “Let me tell you, it’s hard when you’re fat and you’re buying a four scoop sundae,” she tells Allison. “People look at you like you just ran over their grandma.”
It’s a sign of maturity that Allison learns to spin a few yarns herself, though she’s a liar at first—telling her would-be boyfriend that she’s from San Diego and that her dad’s a college football coach, the better to spin her backstory into something resembling normalcy. Allison’s fibbing exposes her defensiveness and eagerness to rewrite her past, though her ex doesn’t make that easy once he discovers where she is. Northline derives its title from one of his letters to her: “I’ve decided I really am gonna be moving North,” he writes. “Like I always wanted. Just draw a line and go. A Northline.” He’s foolish to think that moving in a straight line to somewhere is a solution, of course, and the novel’s biggest flaw is Vlautin’s concern that we might not get this; in the final pages Paul Newman returns to remind Allison, “You head up to Wyoming or Montana and you’ll run into the same things as you do in Vegas or New Orleans. You’ll run into yourself.”
Vlautin struggles a bit to dramatize this idea in the closing pages. In the final scene he wants to engineer a big finish 200 or so pages after he’s successfully sold you on the idea that finding yourself isn’t about big transformative moments; it’s important that Allison come out of Reno better than she came in, but making her change too much would only sound false. So if the final pages aren’t as satisfying as they ought to be—the tone sweetened, the metaphors obvious—Vlautin still emerges with a richly detailed wayward searcher. And though Allison hasn’t traveled nearly as far as Zebulon Shook, Vlautin makes it clear just how much she’s moved. In her own stubborn, determined way, she’s epic.