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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 12-JAN 13

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DEC 12-JAN 13 Issue

On the Road Again

Carl Watson
Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming
(Sensitive Skin, 2012)

Carl Watson, fellow Chicagoan and friend for a couple decades, has published the novel Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming, which is something of a re-imagining of On the Road and other mid-century odes to the highway, updating them to a period after the rebirth of feminism, which gave women a larger role to play in the public sphere and, for that matter, after industrialization, when, with the rise of outsourcing, good-paying working class jobs were in short supply. 

Kerouac’s novel was written in America’s boom times, when money was flowing and suburbs sprawling. It’s not surprising that protagonist Sal Paradise’s attitude to every town and vista he visits along the lonesome road is a resounding, “Gee whiz.” Watson’s ’70s America is different. “Economic dislocation is what the university hot-shots were calling it. [It concerned men who] after the government had fucked them … lost their jobs and their house and their self respect to swindlers and two-timers.” When his hero, Frank Payne, encounters a new scene of this kind of devastation, whether in New Orleans or Chicago or Portland, his response is a bewildered, “What happened?”

Moreover, with the resurgence of feminism, women were cast as newly independent players in down-market bohemia. They no longer appear as the marginal bottle-washers and nuisances that populate Kerouac’s tome. They now have their own street cred and, even, outlaw idols. If the hero models himself on sensitive tough guys—as a friend tells him, “You want to be St. Brando or St. [Phillip] Marlowe or something”—his partner Tanya is a countryish blues rocker cut, consciously, on the larger-than-life pattern of Janis Joplin. Given equal rights to pose, men and women no longer begin relationships on the basis of physical chemistry, but because one image attracts another. It’s as if Frank and Tanya make love as a way of vicariously experiencing what would happen in bed between Brando and Joplin.

It’s only a small step from this insight to Watson’s generalizing his characters’ behavior. After all, isn’t that what the U.S. is all about? On the subject of writers, Watson writes: “After all, how many people became junkies because of Burroughs, bums because of London or Kerouac? How many ended up on skid row having chased a literary illusion so far they couldn’t go back?” Yet, the plague of imitation doesn’t stop with literary poseurs, but spreads to all strata. The author describes some blondes driving by him on the Pacific Coast Highway, laughing as they fly by his chugging motorcycle. “These were the fun people with their fun things—convertibles, sunglasses. The sons and daughters of imagined celebrity, and all of them racing through life, trying to stay ahead of the game, trying to stay ahead of the hour they were in. … because moving faster increases the noise, which increases the possibilities, which, ironically, makes each one less likely.” 

Since the ’70s, the American family has been characterized by absentee, or, at best, distant and preoccupied parents, and Watson suggests that the posturing at the heart-shaped heart of his novel is his characters’ attempt to compensate for the dearth of parental role models. And this, paradoxically, fuels the novel’s intense, frightening energy. If Sal Paradise is looking, I guess, for the soul of America, Frank and Tanya go out looking, well, not so much for Tanya’s mother Naomi, who abandoned the girl when she was 10 years old, but for the image of the mother, who, after all, had been a celebrated leftist and, another twist, running buddy of Janis Joplin. And, to add an Oedipal motif, Frank’s love grows stronger for Tanya, the more he learns about … her mother. 

 Watson’s book contains enough reflections on the psychic geography of America to fill a couple books of cultural criticism, but novel it remains, with insights interwoven into a story of the ups and downs of his down-and-out heroes. There are enough tales of picking apples in a migrant camp, shooting their motorcycle through dangerous curves on mountain roads, drunken bar spats and sleazy one night stands to give Nelson Algren a run for his money. All this amounts to a comic counterpoint and send-up of the all-American idea that we can best live our dreams by imitating someone else’s. Hell, in Watson’s words, one could even be a rebel consumer. “We were working people. We could make some money and buy shit and drink and smash the shit we bought and buy some more shit.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 12-JAN 13

All Issues