An ‘ex­per­i­men­tal’ novel from a writer who hates the word

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY JOHN DO­MINI book­world@wash­post.com John Do­mini’s most re­cent book is the story col­lec­tion “Movieola!”

Steve Erick­son’s nov­els rank among the wildest prodigies in re­cent Amer­i­can fic­tion. His 1985 de­but, “Days Be­tween Sta­tions,” was haunted by a pair of eyes in a bot­tle. His 2007 break­through, “Zeroville” — the ba­sis of a forth­com­ing James Franco movie — whipped up a layer cake as bizarre as it was scrump­tious, com­bin­ing the ghosts of old Hol­ly­wood, chil­dren find­ing sanc­tu­ary in punk rock, and much more.

Nev­er­the­less, Erick­son can’t abide hav­ing his work called “ex­per­i­men­tal.” “I hear the word,” he once told an in­ter­viewer, “and reach for my re­volver.” Per­haps I ought to suit up in Kevlar, then, be­cause I can’t help but think of his new “Shad­ow­bahn” as the best kind of ex­per­i­ment: provoca­tive through­out, alive with laugh­ter and sur­pris­ing in the ways it stirs the heart.

If “Shad­ow­bahn” weren’t such an out­lier, plot sum­mary wouldn’t present such a co­nun­drum. Although there are sus­pense­ful stretches, by and large the story is driven by sheer in­ven­tion. Each imag­i­na­tive leap lands on the twinned themes of Amer­i­can mu­sic and his­tory. A typ­i­cal taste of the book’s plea­sures comes when, out of nowhere, the text breaks into dou­ble col­umns for a rock re­view of a group called “J. Paul Ra­mone & the Beatle­bubs.” The re­view it­self cracks a few jokes, and re­lates a sur­real en­counter, but it stakes a se­ri­ous claim: “What I’m telling here is your story, Amer­ica.”

To main­tain this song-and-story fo­cus, the novel de­pends on two sets of char­ac­ters and a per­vad­ing spooky im­age. The lat­ter pro­vides the open­ing, as Man­hat­tan’s fallen twin tow­ers spring up out of the Dakota Bad­lands. The power of this late-20th-cen­tury tem­ple of com­merce, born again on the an­cient sa­cred grounds of the Sioux, is im­plied in a me­dia catch­phrase Erick­son in­vents: “Amer­i­can Stone­henge.” Still more evoca­tive is the mu­sic the build­ings emit: a dif­fer­ent song for each set of ears.

But the nar­ra­tive never lingers. In­stead, it shifts be­tween two very dif­fer­ent sets of sib­lings. One is a white Cal­i­for­nian named Parker and his adop­tive Ethiopian sis­ter, Zema. They’re driv­ing east out of L.A., and at first their only mu­sic is “their fa­ther’s old play lists,” their only ten­sions those you’d ex­pect be­tween ado­les­cents so close yet so un­alike.

Far stranger, mean­time, is the sit­u­a­tion of an­other pro­tag­o­nist. This golem comes to life on the fa­tal 93rd floor of the res­ur­rected tow­ers: Jesse Garon Pres­ley, the still­born twin of Elvis Pres­ley. In time, he, too, be­gins to travel, but by un­earthly means and through al­ter­nate his­to­ries. Af­ter all, isn’t Jesse him­self an al­ter­nate? Like the kids out of L.A., doesn’t he travel with a sib­ling? Whether he vis­its Andy Warhol’s Fac­tory or some Ham­burg dive where the Bea­tles played, he bumps up against re­minders that he “ex­ists within the shadow of the other life,” that of the Pres­ley with the “wolf’s purr and wild­cat moan,” the “an­gel-snarl.”

Those turns of phrase show­case Erick­son’s wised-up lyri­cism, al­most tweet-ready. He reins in his ma­te­ri­als, stay­ing this side of pre­cious even when his alt-John F. Kennedy — like most of the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, never named but un­mis­tak­able — re­veals the nar­ra­tive premise: “The . . . zeit­geist is miss­ing a piece.” If Amer­ica got Jesse, not Elvis, where would that leave us? And where does it leave a novel, when it doesn’t fol­low a few char­ac­ters so much as brood over a whole cul­ture, in­ves­ti­gat­ing how the na­tion’s “root was a blues”?

In­quiries like that, although they ru­mi­nate on Jim Crow, 9/11 and the Ghost Dance, pre­clude tragedy in the clas­sic sense. Rather, much of the book’s sec­ond half is spent, as one char­ac­ter puts it, “wax­ing philo­soph­i­cal.” But if this is Erick­son’s most med­i­ta­tive novel — think­ing about mu­sic rather than, like “Zeroville,” con­coct­ing a movie ca­reer — it’s also his most hi­lar­i­ous. A page-long dis­qui­si­tion on “Stormy Weather” might not sound like fun but, the nar­ra­tor notes that the Lena Horne sta­ple was by the same man who wrote “Over the Rain­bow” and “Come Rain or Come Shine”: “It would be log­i­cal to as­sume he has me­te­o­rol­ogy on the brain.”

That quip ap­pears in the notes for a playlist put to­gether by Parker and Zema’s fa­ther. This mu­si­cal com­men­tary takes up a good deal of the text, as I say, and gen­er­ates no drama on its own, but, on the other hand, the brother and sis­ter shar­ing their notes pro­vides some of the liveli­est se­quences. They, too, travel into an­other re­al­ity, the Disunion ter­ri­to­ries and, fi­nally, the su­per­nat­u­ral high­way known as Shad­ow­bahn. Also, they dis­cover the se­cret to the tow­ers’ mu­sic. In the process, these sib­lings come to em­body a more har­monic vi­sion for the coun­try, a big two-hearted slip­stream that may yet carry us away from “the hell­hounds on the trail.”

SHAD­OW­BAHN A Novel By Steve Erick­son Blue Rider. 300 pp. $27

Steve Erick­son’s break­through novel was “Zeroville” (2007).

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