Tuesday, September 22, 2020

American Nomad by Steve Erickson

In a better world, there would be more books like American Nomad -- it's the "sequel" to Leap Year, with novelist Steve Erickson following the 1996 US presidential race in a kaleidoscopic fashion once again. If he'd done that every eight years since (it would be horrible to have to experience every Presidential election that way), we'd have books for 2004 and 2012 and he'd be working on one for this year.

Of course, in an even better world, the US wouldn't be so screwed up that we'd need books like Erickson's to explicate it, but I'm wishing for things in the realm of possibility here.

American Nomad is deeply out of print and mostly forgotten, maybe even more so than Leap Year. I expect only fans of Erickson's novels even know it exists, or have ever read it. It never had a paperback edition. The cover I'm showing here is, as far as I know, the only one it ever had: deeply '90s in all of the good and bad ways.

And that's too bad, because in his visionary way, Erickson saw more clearly what America was, and all the ways it was tearing itself into pieces, almost twenty-five years ago, than most of us can on any given day.

Look, I posted the opening sentences here as a "Quote of the Week" last year -- go read that and come right back.

See what I mean? That's not 2016 -- it was 1996. It was true since 1980, but it took someone like Erickson to make it so clear.

American Nomad is not a book of reportage: one strand of it is Erickson's flameout as Rolling Stone's reporter on the race, hired to provide a unique novelistic take and then immediately subject to publisher Jann Wenner's mercurial demands, most of which were to be more like a reporter. (There's also a cutting quote, from some other reporter, to the effect that Wenner's not sure if he wants to publish great journalism or get invited to the White House after the election.) And that's probably the most factual strand of the book.

Erickson was always a visionary writer rather than a plotty one -- things happen in his book, and are always inevitable in their bizarre glory, but they happen due to buried rules of deeply unknowable universes and secret underground connections and the pure force of human desire. In his novels, they happen to characters that he invents and that live lives separate from their author. In Leap Year, they happened largely to a fictionalized, out-of-time version of Sally Hemings, who was Erickson's conscience or guide or muse.

American Nomad has only Erickson: it's a book taking place in his head, as he travels across America covering the race, or wonders what to do after being fired from covering the race, or half-assedly covering the race anyway without press credentials, or just blasting out full-force Ericksonisms about the way the world really is.

And, like Leap Year, 1996 turned out to be much less of a race than anyone expected, or any of the political reporters Erickson ran with wanted: it was another snoozer, the ending never in doubt. So what Erickson had for American Nomad was the contents of his own head: luckily, those were brilliant.

If you want to understand the buried politics of America, you could do far worse than to read Leap Year and American Nomad. You will likely disagree with lots of Erickson's thoughts -- I did, and I wouldn't be surprised if he did, too, now or even at the time. But he gets the apocalyptic fervor of American politics, the burn-the-whole-damn-thing-down energy from both ends of the spectrum, better than anyone more factual, and brings that to imaginative life on every page.

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