A persistent theme in Steve Erickson’s new novel Shadowbahn is the accidental nature of epoch-defining moments. This is an extremely timely novel, as much by unfortunate accident as by design. If Hilary Clinton had won in November Shadowbahn still would be a profound precautionary tale, but Donald Trump’s election lends it a portentousness Erickson himself couldn’t entirely have seen coming. It’s inaccurate to say his new book is a political novel, if only because that label sticks to just one side of what’s a multifaceted work of art. Erickson doesn’t shy away from politics, though. To give you a taste of the central character Zan’s politics, here he is reflecting on the responsibility of parenthood (another important theme): “he held a laissez-faire philosophy on certain things, that he felt it was up to his son and daughter to find their own way on smaller matters such as the existence of Satan or Republicans.”
In a brilliant set piece in the middle of the book, we are privy to a conversation taking place between John F. Kennedy and Bobby during the Democratic 1960 primaries—only in Shadowbahn’s America JFK has just lost to Adlai Stevenson in the Democratic primary—and JFK laments to his brother, “The only argument for making me president is because we’ve never lived in times like these and no one like me ever has been president before.” Quotes like this have an eerie prescience, because Shadowbahn is a book of fear that contrasts devastatingly with the promise and optimism that powered Erickson’s previous novel These Dreams of You (2012). Obama’s election allowed Erickson to explore a “country expressing itself, beyond what it’s ever allowed itself to express,” as he put it to Michael Silverblatt in 2012. Half a decade later that expression has turned on itself. The underlying jubilance in These Dreams of You is overwhelmed in Shadowbahn by a pervasive threat—a metaphysically airborne menace—to the survival of that dream.
In Shadowbahn we meet an embittered Brit called Winston who finds himself peddling an obscure 45rpm in a plain white sleeve from behind a counter in the record shop where he works. We also discover that the stillborn Presley twin in this alt-America is not Jesse but Elvis, leaving Jesse G. Presley—a central character— making his way as a tone deaf, washed-up Warhol pinup and angry columnist for an obscure jazz magazine called ‘Round Midnight’ and struggling to understand why the world is so vitriolic. Jesse meets an aging, wheelchair-bound JFK in Warhol’s factory and also becomes haunted by the strange vinyl given to him by Winston.
Right from the start this novel performs a high-wire act. Erickson opens with the re-emergence of the Twin Towers on Highway 44 in the Badlands. A cinematic cast of characters gather round the Towers, each taking their turn to speculate, theorize, and come to terms with the phenomenon. We are then introduced to Zan’s children Parker and Zema—from These Dreams of You—traveling across the States in their father’s Camry to see the towers. Both of them mention Zan in the past tense as they listen to his playlist, driving through hostile towns and stopping at rundown motels along the way. At some point Parker gets lost and turns onto the Shadowbahn, a spectral highway that intersects ‘the heart of the century from one end to the other’. These scenes with Parker and Zema, as they travel back in time via Zan’s playlist and talk about their own childhood, are some of the most satisfying. It’s a dynamic that also worked well in These Dreams of You. The absent father, the defiant son, and the prodigious daughter bring feeling drama to an abstract form. Zan’s playlist also serves as a backdrop to bounce around some astute cultural observations about ‘times like these’. Through passages on John Coltrane, The White Stripes, Curtis Mayfield, the Beatles and many more, we get a picture of the eras and cultures Zan feels have been forgotten.
Music is the zeitgeist in Shadowbahn, and it is being eroded by ‘an American idea defined by wealth and power’—as Zan says later in the novel, when he resurfaces in an anonymous hotel, searching for a line to a song he can’t remember. Zan is going through an existentially inflated midlife crisis before he vanishes. In a brilliantly comic scene, when we see Zan trying to reinforce his patriarchal status, he hollers at his children at dinner:
“Stereo”, their father continues, following them out the front door to the driveway, “is the sounds of America. Open! Wide! Containing multitudes. MP3s,” striding alongside the departing car until he worked up to a sprint, “are the format of the twenty-first century.”
But his crisis is also expansive, it’s a national identity crisis. Zan’s playlist is an American songbook, a way to remember. “The music is unlike any heard by anyone since what once was called the ‘American century…’” A sentence like this works when the grist of real loss drives it. It’s not hyperbole or melodrama, Erickson really feels this mourning through Zan.
Erickson is a master of refraction. His narrative fractals fit together exactly at the point you think they’re about to fall apart. But the parallel world we enter when reading Shadowbahn is a serious confabulation. We witness mass cultural amnesia as characters float through an America pervaded by uncertainty, fractured by a sweeping Disunion movement. This book is not a political novel because it deals in hinterlands. It isn’t topical or tabloid. It’s a book not so much about American history as about American memory.
What his readers love about Erickson’s work—those muscled musical sentences, his revelry in personal obsessions and politics, the formal intuition and innovation over precision and clarity, defying genres, the warp and weft of his plots—are also likely the reason he still has a kind of basement-tapes status in American literature (which his readers also cherish.) But this position allows him to continually explore and experiment daringly, as he does in Shadowbahn. As he told Michael Silverblatt, Erickson does not ‘worry too much about what’s the business of novel writing.’ This unconditional approach to art over business makes Erickson’s work an antidote, arriving at a pivotal moment. Shadowbahn will be an epoch-defining book in Trump’s America. It’s an American Heart of Darkness almost by accident.