Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Steve Erickson, _Shadowbahn_

HOW DID I miss this guy? I bought this because I was fascinated by an interview Erickson gave in The Believer (February/March 2019), but he has been publishing for a long time. When the author bio on Shadowbahn noted that he had published in Conjunctions, I was even more surprised that I did  not know him. I have been reading Conjunctions faithfully since the 1990s--how did I miss him? I looked up a couple of his stories that had appeared there, and it turned out I had read them and liked them, just not followed up. My own fault.

Well, it's not too late. I'll just have to catch up.

So... Shadowbahn. It is set in 2021, and the Twin Towers materialize ghostlike in South Dakota. In one of the upper floors, a being materializes--it is Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis's stillborn older twin. (Jesse's previous most remarkable manifestation in our culture, I would say, was in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Tupelo.") , Somehow, Jesse's materializing means that Elvis was never born.

A wide streak in the novel concerns the difference it makes that there was never an Elvis. For one thing, no Beatles--those Liverpool lads do form a rock'n'roll band, and do have a rambunctious residency in Hamburg, but the soil has not been prepared for American Beatlemania, so that never happens, and accordingly a key ingredient of the 1960s never happens. Speaking of key ingredients of the 1960s, JFK is never elected, either, as an un-Elvis-ified Democratic party decided to go with the older and more distinguished Adlai Stevenson in 1960. JFK leaves politics and winds up hanging out at Warhol's Factory, where....

...never mind, I'll save you a few surprises. Meanwhile, back in 2021, Parker and Zema, siblings but racially distinct (Zema was adopted), are on a cross-country car trip from LA to Chicago (yep, Route 66) when they revise their itinerary to include the newly-manifested Twin Towers. Crossing a landscape that has become politically fragmented--some regions have seceded as part of a movement called Disunion--they listen to their father's playlist of twinned songs. Their father is a music-obsessed novelist who, one guesses, bears a certain similarity to Steve Erickson.

The father's commentary on the playlist is--to put it simply--among the best writing I've read on rock/pop music in years. I would single out the chapter on Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" read against Bruce Springsteen's "Murder Incorporated"--had you, like me, failed to realize they were written in the same timeframe, and both alike not released until much later?--but they're all brilliant. Jesse's essay (he becomes a writer for the magazine Rolling Stone might have been had "rock" not happened) about encountering the Beatles in Hamburg is equally remarkable.

Erickson meditates throughout on what differences an event (one that happens or that does not happen) can make. It's an "alternative history" novel, in a way, but an unusually astute and self-aware one.

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