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BOOK REVIEW / Heated adventures of a roads scholar: 'Going Native' - Stephen Wright: Abacus, 8.99 pounds

Jason Cowley
Friday 02 September 1994 23:02 BST

IN The Moronic Inferno Martin Amis wrote: 'Every ambitious American writer is generally trying to write a novel called USA.' USA - it would do as an alternative title for the new novel by Stephen Wright which, teetering on the edge of hysteria, is a raging, hectic exploration of the night world - the dead world - of that country, with its murders and its misfits, its failures and its furies.

It starts slowly, too slowly. Waiting for her husband Wylie to arrive home, Rho Jones prepares supper in the kitchen, sunlight pouring through an open window, while the children play noiselessly in the garden. It's a typical suburban scene - familiar, ordered, gently soothing. We follow Rho as she wanders from room to room, pausing intermittently to steal a glance at the children outside. There are languid digressions and the massing of arbitrary details. Nothing really happens. Yet so disconcertingly odd and defamiliarising are Wright's descriptions of habitual, automatic activities, such as washing vegetables or emptying a kettle, that the reader is soon filled with a tremendous sense of foreboding. It is all too calm; something has to give. Reading these pages is a bit like being woken by the telephone in the middle of the night: you fear the worst.

When Wylie turns up he seems distracted, sleepily elsewhere. As daylight seeps away, friends arrive and everyone sits in the garden, enjoying a barbecue, indolent in the happy languor of the moment. It's late summer, and their voices are lowered to shy whispers. Then just when you think you have got used to the sluggish, drifting pace, the novel suddenly opens up as Wylie, saying nothing, gets up, walks to his car and takes off.

From the buoyant wanderings of Huckleberry Finn to the drug-fuelled, bohemian striving of Jack Kerouac, the glamour of the road has always been an irresistible attraction to American writers. Wright feeds off this great tradition as Wylie, travelling hard, meets up with drifters, lowlifers, pornographers, murderous hitchers and red-lipped whores. From here, as he constantly changes his name or assumes yet another floating identity, all we hear is perpetual screaming - and the wild laughter of fanatics. It is a world without reason, somewhere absolutely removed from the quiet contentment, the ordered domestic patterns, Wylie has left behind. The reader clings to memories of Rho's kind simplicity, her easy domesticity, as a testament to better times. But Wylie never looks back: he just keeps pushing on and on, lying, rampaging, murdering . . . For it's only in death that he can recover the sensation of life.

Wright is a talented stylist: at its best his language, radiant with inhibition, has great clarity and power, and his dialogue, much of it soaked in the vernacular of the street with its cartoonish exaggeration and hilariously fractured syntax, is utterly convincing. His similes are frequently witty and original: '(She) had a magnificent head of curly red hair that trembled like a charged helmet of metal shavings.' Yet his disdain for ready-made formulation and his mistrust of plain prose too often leads to overwriting: 'She lived in Chicago, or sleep's facsimile of that mythic city, under the haunted arrogance of its towers in a shadowy winter light of alienated intimacy.' At moments such as this, Wright's style, weary of supporting too many bloated, word-fat sentences, falls to its knees.

Recalling Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Going Native is structured as a series of interconnecting stories or episodes, held together by a unity of theme and by Wylie's shadowy presence. Each episode introduces a new mix of dead-end characters, with Wylie hovering menacingly on the margins of their debased lives. Yet Wylie is not always the book's commanding presence: sometimes he disappears for a whole chapter, only to be glimpsed at its end holding a gun to his head in a light-starved motel room; sometimes he stops the car to pick up a hitcher who, blood staining his hands, has hacked to death his latest victim moments earlier. What's more, Wylie rarely speaks and, because Wright shuns the magisterial attractions of omniscience, the agency underpinning his actions remains maddeningly unknowable; we can only ever guess at his motives.

Wright's triumph, and it is a considerable one, is to remind us that, to echo Kundera, evil is already present in the beautiful, that hell is already contained in the dream of paradise. And so at the end of this very American journey when Wylie lies dead in the front seat of his car, one can only look on him and ask, as Wright compels us to ask: is this a man?

(Photograph omitted)

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