On the Road for the 90's.... Serial Killer.

Written by Stephen Wright in 1994. Ostensibly about Wylie Jones (see the blurb below), this book reads like a collection of short stories with Wylie (or just his car) making an appearance at the end of the chapter to link them. Each chapter focuses on some aspect of contemporary American Life, eg the suburbs, Crackheads, Hitch-hikers, Porn Stars, Hollywood, and failed attempts to "Go Native" with primitive Indonesian headhunters.
This is a great book; listed as number 13 in ABR's 100 Best Books of the 20th century by American Book Review, though somewhat hard to find in bookstores.


Wylie Jones had it all. The perfect wife. The two kids. The comfortable home in the suburbs. His American dream.

Then, one late-summer night, in the midst of a backyard barbecue with friends, he steps out the front door of his house into another life. Stealing a neighbor's car, a battered Ford Galaxie 500, Wylie embarks on a terrifying odyssey across the heart of media-haunted America.

Out on the road, he easily assumes the identity of Tom Hanna, a friend he has left behind in Chicago, and it is in this borrowed guise and "hot" emerald-green car that Wylie will become known to those he meets on his heady joyride to the Californian coast.

By Journey's end, Wylie Jones (if that ever was his real name) has found a new identity (Will Johnson), a new wife, and a new home, but certainly no peace. It soon becomes evident that the final act of this story will be played out on the evening news to the baffled chorus of family and friends: "He was such a quiet guy... the sweetest man imaginable ... who would have ever suspected?"

One man's dream. Everybody else's nightmare

By turns scathing and hilarious, outrageous and on target, Going Native is the most powerful indictment of the heart of the darkness at the center of contemporary American life since Norman Mailer's An American Dream

Mr. Kurtz "went native", and you saw what happened to him, right? In any encounter with the unknown or the unfamiliar, most people will insist on meeting it on their own terms -- what we in "civilized" countries like to call "civilized" terms -- rather than on its own terms. They usually call this "morality", for reasons they could probably explain better than I.

During the great age of European colonial expansion, explorers were followed by garrisons and accountants. What most of them had in common on their way out to the colonies was a firm belief in the superiority of their own culture and religion. After all, they had ships and guns, and they beat the hell out of most of the cultures they ran into. They were pleased with themselves.

They ran into trouble. The English Arctic expeditions, starting in the Ross and Parry voyage of 1818-19, set out dressed for England and provisioned for the South Seas. They met Eskimos and laughed at those silly people with their silly customs. The laughter sounded funny after their teeth fell out from scurvy, but they kept on laughing. They certainly didn't eat blubber, raw meat, and the contents of deer's stomachs. Maybe they would have if they'd understood the vitamin situation, but they didn't, and they didn't stop to wonder why the Eskimos weren't subject to the same deficiency diseases as they were. They didn't wear sealskins, and they were very cold. They didn't live like the natives: They lived like Englishmen, by God -- civilized people!

The same sort of thing happened all over the world: "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun", as they say. They went to strange and wonderful places, but they thought it might be best to keep their distance. Of course, you can't really do that. Local words pervaded the Anglo-Indian vocabulary and the English in India learned to eat local food as well -- up to a point. Over time, the Raj started to look and feel more than a little bit Indian around the edges. You can spend a year in the Arctic without adapting, but you can't spend a lifetime anywhere without adapting at least a little bit. India is not England, and reality may at times intrude in small ways even on the English. Still, they wore English clothes, they married other English people, they stayed Christian and clove to English Christian mores, they still spoke English, and home was England. For the most part.

Some of them adapted more than just a little bit. The few who adopted the customs and outlook of the locals had "gone native". This was more common in less well-funded and "civilized" colonial operations: The French trappers in Canada often married local women, and the frontiersmen of the US didn't bring china with them. There's no sense of moral failing in that, really. They were practical people and they took life as it came. Heart of Darkness is a different matter: Kurtz's "going native" is a fall from grace, a terrifying and fundamental collapse. That's just a story, but myths tell us a lot about what people are thinking.

Myth is one thing, and reality is another. A great deal of money and power was at stake and there was a corresponding need for men who could adapt. Richard Francis Burton's xenophilia was worth a lot to the Empire: Not quite respectable, but valuable. T.E. Lawrence (you've seen Lawrence of Arabia, right?1) is another fine example. If I could find my copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I might be able to quote accurately his remark about the joy of "breathing in great gusts of Orient" during his youthful travels in the Middle East, long before he did anything worth hiring Peter O'Toole to portray. Both of those guys walked a thin line. They never vanished into the desert or the jungle. Some did, but we don't often get to read much about those.

1I haven't seen it recently myself and you probably haven't seen it at all -- and there is nothing meaningful about it in the database as of this writing -- so I'll do a bit of a recap: The Arabian Peninsula was an issue during the First World War. T.E. Lawrence was a young English lieutenant who went out there and blew smoke up the Foreign Office's ass while organizing the local Bedouin to fight a guerilla war against the Turks, who were allied with Germany. He later wrote a memoir entitled Seven Pillars of Wisdom; he called it that because he just liked the sound of the title and wanted to use it. The strategic overview/Foreign Office bits of Seven Pillars have something of the flavor of the Egyptian portions of V2, except deadly boring. I never did get to the exciting part.

2If I have to tell you that Thomas Pynchon wrote that one, we have nothing further to discuss.

Going Native in America

It turns out I am not the pure Englishman I thought I was. I've been in the US for over seven years now. Well, I say "the US", but what I really mean is "California"; the two are clearly not one and the same. And that is part of what I want to talk about. You see, from the perspective of a an English man, or at least this one, the US looks rather like this: New York (full of Irish cops, Italian delicatessens and abruptness), the Deep South (rednecks and ignorance), the Midwest, (cowboys and Chicago/Detroit) and the West Coast (Hollywood and surfers).

This tends to come from the letterbox perspective of US television, which generally tells the story from the perspective of TV-land, which is to say simply. And (I have dannye to thank for this phrase), the rest is flyover country¹, the bits in between the East and West Coasts, overlooked and ignored by and large, at least until election time. Most TV shows show only the most successful people, living in huge houses or apartments, with one car for everyone over sixteen, and fishing trips (or equivalent) every weekend - the American Dream.

So anyway, enough of the introduction. Suffice to say that soon after I came over, I had a telephone conversation with my Dad, during which he asked "How is America?" and I responded, "I don't know, I haven't been there yet". It did not take me long to realise that California is not America, any more than Ypsilanti or Little Rock are. They are a part of the great whole, and whilst I've had the privilege of travelling rather a lot (eighteen states), I have not seen a tenth of it.

So now I have met rednecks and hippies, conservatives and liberals, farmers and cowmen (who should be friends), and pagans and Christians. I have made a point of searching out Real America and its denizens, because I want to learn about this country, and I need to learn about it not from books or the telly, but from the people who inhabit it and make it work. After all, if I am to be a US citizen, that will stand me in better stead than learning about the Presidency, the The Constitution, the Bill of Rights or any of the other stuff that the citizenship test asks for. This is the real knowledge that I want and need to live here.

The Day-to-day Native

I recently watched a British film (not movie, film) and realised that it was making me feel uncomfortable, that sort of niggling "did I leave the stove on" discomfort that I couldn't quite pin down. It took me a while to realise that at the back of the chummy English actors, the cars were driving on the wrong side of the road. It was quite a revelation, one that took me back to my last visit to England, during which my good host offered me the use of a car to drive to and fro the hospital. I thought about it for a while, but it was a no-brainer. Not just that drivers in Nottingham are crazier than tank drivers on speed, I did not want to deal with the secondary issue of driving on the left. I'd proven my new car habits were deeply ingrained by climbing into the passenger seat on the wrong side every time I'd been in the car.

That's not all the change, of course. By the side of the stove is a can of bacon grease, because I'd learned that all the good recipes begin "fry an onion in bacon grease". I use the handy (largely American) word "gotten", rather than "got", and "cilantro" rather than "coriander", because coriander is only used hereabouts to describe the spice. I've learned to think of Great Britain as over there, and American politics as "our politics".

I watch football (not soccer), but "American" football, at my local sports bar and even have a team I root for - the Green Bay Packers! I have been to a baseball game and know most of the rules, and damnit, I drink American beers (microbrews, not Bud or anything "Lite").

There are limits, of course. I tend still to spell words (and pronounce 'em) in British English rather than American, so it's "colour" (Noah Webster can take a hike), and "ba-sil" rather than "bay-zil". After all, that's what makes me exotic. That and the kilt. Going native is, of course, a long process, but I doubt that I'll ever go all the way, even when the time comes to hold a new American passport.

Take care, y'all.

¹ I should point out that I have been through the Midwest and many parts of the South, and of coure learned a good deal along the way.

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