“In this universe the night was falling…” So muses Clayton Bewley, the uprooted Kentuckian at the center of Terry Bisson’s latest novel Any Day Now. It’s a line Clay plucks from Arthur C. Clarke, and it underscores the novel’s blend of coming-of-age tropes and sci-fi-influenced alternate 1960s history. As Clay finds himself in worlds beyond Kentucky, including New York and the hippie communes of the West, we too find ourselves in a world we’ve never seen: a 1968 that Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. survived.
Bored by small-town life in Owensboro, and enthralled by the Oz books and jazz, the teenage Clay looks for a mentor in local beatnik Peter Rhodes—or, as he prefers, Roads. Roads dropped out of Columbia to “get an education”, and he now inspires Clay to pursue poetry. Though Clay’s parents bundle him off to a Midwest college, he too drops out and heads to New York City, determined to “find” poems. He quickly makes friends with young, well-connected members of the New Left and falls for a student activist from Barnard named Mary Claire, or EmCee.
A mediocre poet, Clay makes ends meet with a job as a mechanic, until a bomb explosion in a townhouse implicates him and his friends in the radical group the Weather Underground. Grieving over the missing EmCee and now pursued by the FBI, Clay heads to New Mexico, where Roads and others are “building the new world” in a geodesic dome. Though he’s withdrawn from the outside world, Clay keeps tabs on the political changes rattling the country. Now that RFK and MLK have survived their assassination attempts, they’ve partnered up for a presidential election that, shadowed by Hubert Humphrey’s own dictatorial hopes, threatens to shatter the Union.
Any Day Now is a curious portrait of the Sixties. The novel presumably draws on Bisson’s own life as an Owensboro native and member of the New Left, and appropriates real events like the 1970 explosion at 18 West 11th Street. It grounds itself by weaving in the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, the Vietnam War, and New York icons like Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol. The title itself is borrowed from a 1968 Joan Baez album. Then, for reasons difficult to articulate, it slips into alternate history.
Bisson is no stranger to this kind of storytelling. An author whose short fiction has won both the Nebula and Hugo awards, his novel Fire on the Mountain also explored alternate history—in that case, what would have happened if John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry had succeeded. While Any Day Now also explores questions of civil liberties, the alternate history itself feels tangential to the main story. Holed up at the dome, Clay becomes more of an observer than a participant in this re-imagined America, which he learns about primarily through radio, letters from home, and word-of-mouth.
To accommodate the time and space the story needs to cover, Bisson uses short scenes with minimal exposition and snappy dialogue. This leads to some crystallizing moments, such as when Lena, Clay’s college girlfriend, responds to his hope of going to the Student Union meeting “with my girl” by clipping their scene short with, “I’m my own girl… You’re all your own guys, aren’t you?” It also lets Bisson capture the spirit of the times in single strokes: “Poems were all over in New York, easy to find but hard to catch, like pigeons.” However, his quest for these clever turns of phrase isn’t always successful: “Clay only saw her on weekends when he lifted the big brass knocker on the townhouse door, and lifted, with her kind permission, her little knockers under her T-shirt, friendly in his palms.”
While it might work at the sentence level, this tight-lipped style does not serve the novel well as a whole. The first chapter effectively uses short scenes, often less than a page long, to skip through Clay’s childhood to his teenage years. But as later chapters use this technique to leapfrog through events, the entire novel starts to feel as if it were stuck on fast-forward.
This briskness, in turn, clashes with the cumbersome cast of secondary characters. Although Roads and EmCee have the strongest influence on Clay, Bisson feels it necessary to update us on the whereabouts and activities of Cicero, Gantz, Little Richard, Ira, the Other Ginsberg, Lowell, Dove, Becca, Plain Bob, Johnny, Annie—and quite a few more. The multitude of recurring faces conveys the small circles through which Clay drifts, but the characters are so many and so briefly sketched that they leave little to no impression. When an old friend of Clay’s visited the commune as a surprise, I found myself frantically flipping back to the first chapter to figure out who he was.
With Any Day Now, Bisson layers Clay’s personal story of self-discovery over a violent alternate history that, of course, comments on our own troubled times. He invests the novel with a strong sense of the ’60s, but readers may find the narrative style exhausting rather than liberating.