Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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I read this novel in one stuttered sitting, starting at dawn on a bus heading west down Lawrence Avenue, then on the O’Hare train, then standing at a charging station somewhere in the H gate, and, finally, above the clouds, disoriented and vaguely buzzing from the images, the lines. “My last night in Chicago my friend Santiago took me to a bar where I met a woman who told me that the lack of excess and chance is the beginning of failure. Don’t go home, she said. Don’t fly to a damp wasteland, emptiness, fields. There’s nothing down there anymore,” Hobson writes, speaking as Gideon, a protagonist who practices a subtle sort of study toward saintliness. Gideon gives away his gloves, for instance, in the middle of winter wind chill; when he decides to head back to Texas, he gives away his coat.
He heads home, to Deep Ellum, after his mother’s attempted suicide. But he doesn’t shake off the urban anonymity of Chicago; rather, he wanders around, wrapped still in the psychic state of the city. “I could imagine myself walking like this for a long time,” he thinks. “All around me was narrowness and shadows, brick buildings, the street. The air was heavy and dead. This was the function of Middle America cities in winter—rank smells, empty streets, narrow alleys and shadows.” For me at least, this was largely a book about Chicago, via the lens of Dallas, the Deep Ellum neighborhood’s pedestrian vacancy in the snow, weird bars, street-talkers. This is a book of walking, collecting anecdotes, fragments of conversation. The snows of Chicago follow him south, but it’s not the same, at once less razory and less picturesque. Deep Ellum is a dreary place for Gideon, who pops another Hydrocodone against his situation, drinks a little vodka, and shuffles out under the drizzle and ash, the mumbling of tattered human stories all around him... People talk about the weather, its extremes, about insect bites and disease, about the urge to beat up a man who takes too long at the urinal. People make paintings by dipping live fish into pigment: death flutters as brush-strokes. And real villains stain their teeth sucking black licorice, scribble notes on cetaceans off a TV documentary. The scenes are equally surreal, decorated with flotsam from dreams: there’s a bar with “chandeliers made of elk horns” and a restaurant—which I will not spoil by describing—called The White Rabbit.
In his suffering wandering, he is not unreminiscent of Holden Caulfield, and, indeed, he dreams of being awakened after a gunshot by Mark David Chapman, the man who carried a copy of The Catcher in the Rye on his trip to the Dakota, to murder John Lennon. So Hobson’s Gideon is like a Caulfield in the aftermath of all that, “alone in the world in a way that somehow gave me a strange grace,” slouched under the unspeakable weight of the world. His mother is bad off, as is his brother; as for his sister, in addition to everything else, she and Gideon are lovers, a love perhaps simpler and more pure than any other.
Yet in the midst of Gideon’s loneliest wanderings, he clutches a cell phone. Indeed, he seems to enter a deeper level of loneliness in response to the unreturned or dismissively responded-to text. And while, in the end, Deep Ellum offers Gideon a kind of warped community, a fucked-up family that proves to be family all the same, it was, for me, these images of solitary transit, of weird encounters in a cold and wide-spread world, that were most transfixing about this satisfying little book.
Official Brandon Hobson Web Site
Official Calamari Press Web Site