There’s a certain leap of faith we take with any book—if it’s a book we’ve heard a lot about, we’re going on faith that the hype is accurate; if it’s by a writer we’ve already enjoyed, we’re going on faith that this one is going to appeal to us, too; if it’s a book we’ve heard nothing about by a writer we’ve never heard of, we’re taking the greatest leap. I find the suspense with this last sort of leap the most unbearable when the book begins well. Great beginnings can lead, after all, to great disappointments.
Thus it was with some trepidation that I began Brian Francis Slattery’s first novel, Spaceman Blues—a book I hadn’t heard much about by an author not familiar to me. Then began the suspense, because the first pages were not just pretty good, they were extraordinary. The events were mysterious and weird, which is an easy enough way to attract some interest early on, but more than that, the sentences were so full of rhythm that reading them became a joy in itself. I prepared myself for disappointment, because with each page it became clear that Slattery had set out on a high-wire act—his story is alternately epic and personal, it includes many characters in relatively few pages, those characters come from a wide variety of backgrounds, the viewpoint is often omniscient, and the prose has such a distinctive music to it that a few mistaken notes could shatter the whole. Most attempts to achieve so much would fail again and again.
About 50 pages in, I stopped worrying. The writing was so assured that I no longer doubted Slattery could pull it all off. And he does. The book is a marvel: funny, weird, touching, a joy to read not just for its music and its imagination, but also for the generous and intelligent view of life that it offers: a view of life that is neither sentimental nor cynical, full of a certain type of hope but never blind to the miseries hope can cause. Spaceman Blues is a cousin and equal of some recent novels that have maintained my faith in the ability of fiction to simultaneously possess meaning, beauty and vision—Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper—but it’s a singular book, offering its own riffs on the joys and pains of life and its own rifts across the surface of our shared delusions and commingled dreams.
It’s a story of a quest for a lost love, the story of an alien invasion, the story of known and unknown neighborhoods in New York City, the story of people who seek that great abstraction called the American Dream in the ever-disillusioning concrete jungles of the United States. It begins with a person who goes missing, a man named Manuel Rodrigo de Guzmán González, and continues with the quest of his lover, Wendell, to find him. The story accumulates a collage of people and places, each one drawn with just enough detail to make them vivid and to hint at how their paths will intersect as the book becomes a Baedeker of the bizarre, revealing an entire city beneath New York, a world where old tugboats and subway cars sit suspended from a distant ceiling up above the poisonous water at the bottom of the city’s deepest darkness, a world that can make an ordinary guy into a superhero, so long as he’s willing to sacrifice everything for what he most desires.
And just when it seems there’s nothing left to discover, that all the paths are crossed and all the dreams deferred, the universe opens up and shows our heroes their limitations, and in their limitations they discover their nobility, and in their nobility they get to shine for one last moment in the face of apocalypse. The blues turn sadness into beauty, and the beauty of Spaceman Blues comes from its willingness to face the sadness with a cold eye and a big heart, not to turn away or cop out or get all drippy with either self-love or self-hatred. Yes, there are aliens and superheroes and secret worlds in this novel, but it’s truer than many a tale with more ordinary folks and physics, because it’s not blind to either joy or heartbreak, and it never takes an easy way out.
There are plenty of remarkable elements to Spaceman Blues, but one that struck me most is the complexity of its points of view. Not only are numerous characters presented, but they are presented along with both their thoughts and their histories. (The only recent novel I can think of that accomplishes the same thing is Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, a much different book.) This is a difficult technique to employ, especially in a book of only 219 pages, because it risks the loss of narrative tension and focus, and it risks an overabundance of detail that prevents the reader from building a meaningful pattern from the plethora of stuff. (Paging Dr. Barthes for a Reality Effect!)
Slattery avoids the many possible pitfalls through subtle structural balance, excellent pacing and, perhaps most importantly, lively sentences. It’s certainly not true for all readers, but I, for one, give writers more leeway when their sentences are full of music than when they are carved from noise by a tone-deaf engineer. Lyricism isn’t enough to last me for too long, but Slattery never takes too long—that’s the craft in his pacing and structure. From early on, we’re trained to look for multiple viewpoints, and from early on we learn that these viewpoints will be asides—not diversions so much as grace notes, the flourishes that create the texture that contributes to the depth that adds to the fuel that expands the plot into something more than a romp, giving the novel layers of meaning, implication and emotion that many longer stories lack.
An example will do for now (though nothing taken out of context is enough). Consider Swami Horowitz, a minor character we’re introduced to early on, a man who lives in a house that “was dragged into Jamaica Bay by a storm in 1954 that put half the neighborhood underwater.” His parents, trapped on the first floor, drowned, but Swami survived and “used a small part of his inheritance to build a pontoon bridge from his neighbor’s dock to the second floor of the house, 42 yards out in the water.” Because of plate tectonics, he decides to stay where he is. “‘I will not be caught off guard again,’ Swami Horowitz said. ‘One day the land will move as the water does. One day this city will suffer another catastrophe. When that happens, I will be prepared.’” Swami and Wendell have a conversation, and then the scene ends with this paragraph:
Eleven years later, when he is at sea, Swami Horowitz will go naked, keep his clothes folded inside so he doesn’t wear them out, slather himself in fish oil so he doesn’t burn. He’ll dose water with iodine, learn to cook fish bones into a thin soup that he can eat when all the meat is gone. He will marvel that always, just as his propane is running low and he considers throwing himself into the ocean, another ship will come. Sometimes two men, a man and a woman, worse off than he is and begging for hooks and bait, sometimes a derelict with dried corpses on the deck; he will take what he can from below. But sometimes it will be a tanker packed with a small town’s worth of people who will invite him aboard for thick stew, jambalaya, vegetables they grow in hydroponic tanks in the hold. Then there will be parties, jangling dance music from homemade metal instruments. They will have heard of him, and he them; he will recognize the emblem of the Free State of Oceanica tattooed on the captain’s forehead. When Swami Horowitz pushes off from them at last, he will think about how the links break, but always re-form. His friends are far from him, and some are gone, but they carry each other across the world.
Character by character, this technique of gathering glimpses from the past and future accumulates into entire histories, so that by the time we reach the middle of the book, we know much of what has happened in characters’ lives well before the events of the first page, and by the last page of the book we have seen many moments from much farther on. (Do we believe them? Are they possibilities rather than certainties? The past could be mythic, or at the very least embroidered; the future could be a wish or a lie or a dream. It’s all fiction, anyway. What matters is what we choose to believe.)
There is so much more. There is the Church of Panic and the Pan-Galactic Groove Squad; there is Masoud, who was a Syrian pilot in Lebanon and could not save his brother and now and then claims to be a pacifist; there is a reporter who writes an always-expanding, meticulously updated book titled Death in the Five Boroughs; there is Lucas, who grew up in a moon-worshipping cult and got rescued and deprogrammed by the FBI and now throws the best parties; there are detectives named Trout and Salmon; there’s the recurring joke about the octopus and the bagpipes; there are the Ecuadorian soccer players who are one near-miss away from insanity as they work the tarmac at JFK; there are the Ciphers and the Four Horsemen and the coroner named Dr. Gore.
There is much in Spaceman Blues—characters and places and ideas, words and histories—much that is sorrowful and much that is sublime. It is subtitled “a love song,” but it is more than that, for it is songs of all sorts, entire arias and symphonies, and it sings visions, and the visions are both full and fulfilling—visions of all sorts of realities, and those realities are the ones we share and the ones we dream. I don’t mean to imply that the book is flighty; no, it is grounded in the heavy firmity of New York City, to which it is, indeed, a love song, and so it seems appropriate to end with a measure from that song, one among many:
They emerge at six-thirty through a drainage pipe emptying into the Hudson. The river is orange with morning, the George Washington Bridge leaps over the river, cars shine across it, honking at each other. The people in front of Wendell look like survivors of a massacre, chicken blood strewn over their clothes; they pull their arms over their heads and blink, as if waking up. For a time, the group is gathered at the pipe’s edge, contemplating the traffic on the Henry Hudson above, the few sailboats below, the greenery on the top of the Palisades that makes New Jersey seem so inviting sometimes, but before long, they are dispersing, going home. Many of them can see their apartments from there, they live right up in those broken-down buildings above the freight tracks, but for Wendell, it is a long way back to Astoria. He has never gotten used to this idea, that a few miles could take hours to cross, and as he switches from train to bus, crossing the span of the Triborough Bridge, he can feel the city expand beneath his feet, stretching over the curve of the planet, a buzzing network of manholes and mazed asphalt, canals, crouching brownstones and leaning tenements, offices knifing into the sky, until it is easy to believe that all the world is like this, though of course it isn’t.
Brian Francis Slattery