In John Steinbeck's East of Eden, the character Lee says "the greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears". Tim Lott's new novel delves into the heart of this original sin, of estrangement and separation, and explores whether, in a global climate of breakdown, there is hope of reconciliation and something like love.
During the financial collapse of 2008, Salinger Nash, named after the more famous JD, is a London-based artist who feels the emotional negative equity of the times keenly. He is prone to a depression that shames him, is convinced that his life is unravelling. His brother Carson, named after another American writer of loneliness, is a born-again Christian who has escaped to America, "the kingdom of the bland", and lives in New Orleans. His amiable fatalism seems impenetrable. Their father deserted them for Texas 30 years ago and the lingering animosity has poisoned the relationship between them all.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the brothers decide to track down their father and embark on a road trip across the wilderness of America in Carson's spotless Lexus - Salinger has to remove his shoes before settling into the passenger seat. From mutual suspicion their relationship touchingly approaches respect, but Salinger cannot dispel the ominousness of something dark on their horizon, as he carries a faded family Polaroid of someone who appears to have been severely beaten. Salinger senses that neither of them can fulfil their wishes without doing the other harm.
Mishaps abound, their car is stolen, they continue in grand Zen tradition on a motorcycle, and Salinger has a terrifying encounter with a spiritual healer. Arriving at their father's house they are confronted by his housekeeper who threatens them with a Magnum 44. Their father is dying and their unbearably poignant final meeting is a dust storm of accusation out of which emerges harsh truths and iron-forged mutual understanding.
This is not a bleak novel. There are achingly funny moments. Salinger and Carson's verbal punch-ups have the sting of a muscular wit, and patrolman Wendell Valentine who recovers their Lexus, referring to the brothers as "Limey faggots", is a generously comic character. Lott's narrative skill injects genuine pathos into a scene where they run over a dog and have to kill it, a moment of terrible disassociation that reveals a glimpse of chaos lurking beneath Carson's born-again equanimity. Salinger, too, finds the spectacle of violence strangely liberating. Death is compared with elegant simplicity to an iridescent tropical fish whose shockingly bold colours gradually fade to grey.
There is a tragic rejection at the heart of this story. Lott is attempting to solve what he sees as a deep-rooted crime against humanity, excavating the blank spaces beneath the rawness of everyday life. The boy's father ran away to America because it's a country "where loneliness has grandeur". The novel's sensitivity to emotional crisis is subtle and penetrating. Salinger visits a bookshop in Marfa, Texas to buy a copy of The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers for his brother, and the bookshop assistant says "Good books are really good though, aren't they? When you find them". This is one of them, a really good book.