Return to site

On the Shadowbahn

Mikal Gilmore

I was happy to learn in recent days that Steve Erickson—a long time friend, but more important, a longtime imaginative novelist —has a new novel coming out. I don't know its title nor publication date nor plot (the latter is sometimes a tricky matter in Erickson's books), but I do know that his last work, Shadowbahn, is my favorite novel of this century.

Here's what I wrote about it around the time the book was published in early 2017:

This is how Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn—the most apt novel we could hope for or fear right now—begins:

A man, Aaron, is filling his truck’s gas tank, arguing with his wife on the cell phone, when she hangs up on him. Annoyed, he climbs into his truck, obsesses to himself about what we always obsess over after such moments: How the hell did THAT go that wrong? He drives along Route 44. It’s a stretch of American highway that cuts through the Disunion, in the Dakota Badlands.

As Aaron comes around a bend it takes a moment to register: Standing right before him are the Twin Towers—the buildings that collapsed into dust on September 11, 2001. Aaron hits his brakes. Other cars and trucks come along and do the same. The Towers are vertical again, in another place and time. The news, of course, spreads instantly.

broken image

Myriads gather. Television focuses on nothing else. Yet nobody approaches the buildings—well, almost nobody, but that’s later. Music is coming from the Towers—but different people hear different songs. Some wonder if they see life inside one of the buildings. Is somebody inside there? Still, nobody wants to near or enter the structures. Those edifices are more than haunted houses. They are ghost monuments of a haunted state.

In the moment the buildings appear out of nothing, so does their sole resident: Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s stillborn twin brother. Jesse is a man out of time. He knows some things innately, but not others. Where is he? What is with that world outside?

These mysteries open Erickson’s tenth novel, Shadowbahn, and either alone would be considerable enough to hold any center. But the buildings and the man come and go. Jesse leaves the Towers and intersects with a familiar but auxiliary history. In Jesse’s life—the one on the pages here, not the one in a baby’s Tupelo grave—it was Elvis who died; yet in Jesse’s true historical non-life, Elvis never happened (the real Jesse was, of course, never more to us than a forgotten fact or rumor, a non-life).

The Jesse here cannot fill the gap of Elvis’s event, but he knows he’s in his younger brother’s shadow nonetheless. Jesse flees. He ends up in places and times and meets others that, like him, who might have happened in our history in monumental ways yet didn’t occur on this map. These characters carry the burden of shadows. They almost know what those shadows delineate. They realize at moments that their forestalled famous fates somehow foreshadow their wretched substitute fates.

At one point Jess, working as a male model, encounters John F. Kennedy at an Andy Warhol Factory gathering. Kennedy is a bitter man. He almost won—but instead lost—the 1960 Democratic nomination. In years since, his spinal condition has ruined him. Now he sits and drinks and watches others in a deigning but grudging way. JFK—whom others barely notice is in the room in his wheelchair—knows instinctively to hold Jesse Presley in contempt. It’s the last thing Kennedy ever does.

Later, Jesse winds up in what I could swear is the Cecil Hotel—the mysterious, old- and otherworldly downtown Los Angeles inn, where bad people lived and bad things happened, like inexplicable death. Only in Erickson’s storyscape, it isn’t named the Cecil, and it isn’t even in Los Angeles. Erickson fucks with you that way, reminding us of things that maybe we never knew in the first place.

Jesse does that too. He disturbs people. Some hold him to blame for surviving at the cost of somebody who was greater, who broke open the century—though since that person never happened, it is hard for people to assign what Jesse has spoiled or what exactly has gone unopened. One man, however, tumbles to it. Jesse himself writes about their interaction later, during a time he momentarily metamorphosed into, give or take, Lester Bangs. (Jesse, it turns out, knew a lot about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and their Quintets).

Jesse Presley writes of a night in a dank and lowdown bar-club in Hamburg, when he came across what would’ve been the Beatles—though they aren’t and never would be, and the group’s name is never mentioned in either Jesse’s or Erickson’s tale. Jesse has no real idea of what they might have become (though Paul McCartney makes some unprecedentedly adventurous music, then is killed). That night in Germany, though, Jesse thought the band (with Pete Best on drums and Stu Sutcliffe on bass) was pretty good at playing American Negro music.

He tried to have a conversation with John Lennon—a John Lennon who…I was going to say a John Lennon who never was. Except in this portrayal, Erickson pulls off a remarkable illumination: The Lennon on Shadowbahn’s pages is probably closer to the real Lennon than most of us might imagine. He is a nasty piece of work. He knows the Beatles will never happen—he knows they are in for a haunting and resentful almostness. He is as insecure in the greatness he won’t know as the real Lennon was once he procured his greatness. Lennon is the only person in Jesse’s eventline who understands that because Elvis never happened, the Beatles, among other things, can’t really happen either. You take those two factors out—Elvis and the Beatles—and there you have two other missing towers, except these two never miraculously rise out of the story’s dust.

In the background, in the air, around the edges of the story, something about our land and its providence has changed. There are places—whole parts of the country—you don’t want to step foot in. There is anger and fear across the place, on all sides, though it is never on the page in any central moment or account. Something broke the nation, left it as a patchwork atlas of federations and discontent.

I think—this is my interpretation, not Erickson’s words—I think the country came apart in the aftermath of having its first Black president. For some those years were the realization of a promise and debt; a time of hopeful blooming. For others, it was the worst thing that could’ve happened. They didn’t want to acknowledge the guilt the nation had accrued over centuries, nor did they want others to. They felt lessened by that growth—they had to cut it off as if it were a tumor. They renounced the part of the nation that let this happen, that believed in it.

broken image

You drive across the map of the America in Erickson’s book and you drive across the map of America that is America: It is a landscape of grievances that cannot be solved. What America has become in Shadowbahn is what America could well become by the time this book hits softcover. I, for one, might not mind pulling off from Trump’s America. Effectively, we already have here in California.

Trump is never mentioned in these pages. No leader is mentioned—just their shadows: Kennedy, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and even then they aren’t properly named. Erickson worked on this book a long time. It was finished well before the election. I haven’t asked him, but I suspect he’s surprised, maybe disheartened, to find his book land so perfectly in its time. This is THE American book of the American Now. Even if Erickson’s disheartened, he prophesied it well. He felt its coming in his bones.

A couple of sentences ago, I mentioned that the America you might drive across in this book is in fact the America you drive across today. Two people make that journey here, a brother and sister. The brother, Parker, is older, and he is white. The sister, Zema, is younger, and she is Black. They are driving from California to visit their mother on Lake Michigan.

Their father, an author, died earlier—perhaps more than once, in more than one moment of lonely courage. As they drive, Parker and Zema learn of the inexplicably resurrected Towers. Brother and sister were too young to have felt the weight of that original crushing, but like anybody who ever learns of a resurrection—a miracle that is a curse, rather than a blessing—they can’t resist. They drive toward the site, but they have to be careful. They are Black and white together, and in today’s America, as in yesterday’s America, that can be dangerous. As they drive, there is a tension between them—I don’t want to untangle it here—but there is also a bond. These are two people who would die for each other, probably mutually exasperated and in a snit to their last breaths.

As Parker and Zema ride they play music: a playlist, or lists, made by their late father. The songs’ titles are listed (at least partially) in the book. The list tells its own endlessly complicated and consequential stories.

A personal aside: Like many of us, I once took meaning and pleasure in making what later became known as mixtapes or playlists, assembling sequences of songs by different artists who maybe shared a time or style or views, but just as often were culled across genres and decades and traditions. Erickson and I—and many of our friends—shared these tapes with one another. We were all looking for links—for what led into what, and what followed. It might be a beat, a tone, a motif or note-cluster, a key, a silence or split-second linkup; any epiphanic hook. Often our lists were meant to speak for ourselves—our views of life, our heartbreaks or hopes, our times, our experience of the music itself and how it resonated for us. We were telling stories with these lists. Each song moved things along.

Here’s a key thing about those collections we made: We had complete control over how they were sequenced. At first, we were recording from vinyl or CD on to analog cassette tape. A listener could fast-forward through a song, but short of exceptional work, a listener could not resequence our stories, could not retell our lives (though they might lose or erase the tape—which could kind of fuck you up, and which happened to me more than once).

The advent of MP3—as the father of Parker and Zema notes—changed all that. It made for a death of the author (ironic and symbolic, as it turns out for the writers in Erickson’s story). At first, because of the CD’s new technology, a listener could skip tracks—story parts—reorder them. With MP3 (or now FLAC, lossless, MP4, digital databases), the listener is in total control. She or he can skip any song, play the titles in random sequence, delete or substitute them. The stories no longer belong to us. The stories belong to whoever hears them, how they hear them, what they make of it all for themselves. They make their own moments and stories from it all.

Playlists might be the biggest population on the planet today. They run you over with every car that passes you by, with every step you take in your earphones, every coffee shop or fashion store you enter, every channel you change, every mile you travel, every music service you tap into. I’m convinced the playlist(s) that Parker and Zema listen to as they drive—bequeathed on them by their father as much as any other significant legacy they might inherit—is the central character of this book. It makes up for lost history and for devastation, and it guides the brother and sister as they traverse tricky and risky roads. The list holds, delineates, gives example to, the heart of those important things that survive in the treacherous new Americas: songs from blues, from rock & roll, from jazz and Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, from punk and avant-garde composers or pop makers, from folk, from many broken times and hearts, the work outlasting and therefore justifying all that brokenness. (Believe me, you really want to read Steve Erickson writing about Bob Dylan’s spookiest song, “Blind Willie McTell.”)

The father made the playlist for his own purposes, and now it forms a guide for his children, a testimony, an experience of an undeniable and transformative history that truly mattered, blessings that resulted from America's great sin. The song list become its own poetry and witness, another time-shifting and intricate history. It is also its own vindication of our trespasses, a signpost to help acknowledge or maybe make up for a transgression that has never really ended.

broken image

The father who made the playlists, though, felt something was missing from his own perception. There's a lacuna in his memory, a song lyric just out of reach. He needs it in order to complete his life’s work. He believes the line can be found in the songs on his list—only he can’t recall the song or the line that comes next.

When he does, it is not deliverance: It is terror, nothingness; it is the unknown and delivery bearing down all at once, full force, in utter quiet realization for the reader. But because Erickson knits this particular mystery—a man remembering a line but not quite mustering it—so effectively, it prompted a similar response in me as a reader. The most palpable thing in Shadowbahn is a parent’s love for children; for the hope they might represent, of course, but also just for their being, for signifying that parent’s fulfilled purpose in life. As I read through this part of Shadowbahn, a lyric teased at my own periphery:

“When you're all alone and lonely

In your midnight hour.”

Then the rest later came to me:

“And you find that your soul

It has been up for sale

And you begin to think about

All the things you done

And begin to hate/Just about everything….

Glory of love, the glory of love

The glory of love, might see you through.”

It’s a word or prayer to the wise—or, better, to the unwise. It’s not a promise.

Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.

Steve Erickson's Playlist

Shenandoah ::: Dave Alvin

Mystery Train ::: Elvis Presley

Lost Highway ::: Hank Williams

Candy Says ::: The Velvet Underground

A Change Is Gonna Come ::::Sam Cooke

Blind Willie McTell ::: Bob Dylan

Black & Tan Fantasy ::: Duke Ellington

Coney Island Baby ::: Lou Reed

Naima (take 1) ::: John Coltrane

The Warmth of the Sun ::: The Beach Boys

Hellhound On My Trail ::: Robert Johnson

Miles Runs The Voodoo Down ::: Miles Davis

People Get Ready ::: The Impressions

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted ::: Jimmy Ruffin

Spirit In The Dark ::: Aretha Franklin

Wooly Bully ::: Sam The Sham & The Pharoahs

Night Train (Live at The TAMI show) ::: James Brown

La Bamba ::: Richie Valens

Round Midnight ::: Julie London

Shenandoah ::: Spider John Koerner