Mona Bright used to be a cop. She was married. They were expecting a baby. Then, abruptly, everything fell apart and her life collapsed. Since then, she’s been drifting from town to town, taking short term jobs, drinking heavily, looking for oblivion… until she learns that she’s inherited her mother’s house, somewhere in a small New Mexico town called Wink.
When Mona starts trying to find Wink, it turns out that the place is incredibly hard to track down. Resolved to grasp the chance at stability that this house represents, she digs in and finally manages to reach the isolated little town. Wink turns out to be picturesque and quiet, a quintessential American Small Town complete with lovely houses, healthy lawns and white picket fences, but it soon becomes clear that there’s something very odd about the people who live there….
American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett is a novel with two distinct phases. There’s the first phase, which shows Mona getting to Wink and trying to figure out what exactly is going on with the town and its very strange inhabitants, and there’s the second phase, which begins with Mona discovering the town’s quote-unquote secret and dealing with the bewildering aftermath. Together, the two parts form one cohesive story, but they’re so different in atmosphere and pace that it almost feels like reading two different novels.
The first part of American Elsewhere is by far my favorite. Robert Jackson Bennett is masterful when creating the strange atmosphere of Wink. This section of the novel is simply eerie, in much the same way Twin Peaks was eerie. It offers a recognizable slice of American small-town life, but it’s abundantly clear that there’s something really odd going on underneath the surface. Exactly what it is doesn’t become clear for a good long time, but until then you can simply enjoy the way Bennett slowly unveils hints and occasionally drops a bombshell of pure, unmitigated weirdness into the flow.
There are some incredibly, memorably bizarre scenes in this novel. There are passages where Bennett slows down to emphasize the oddness of a situation, highlighting simple elements of the scenery that are bizarrely out of place or, sometimes, just appear to be out of place because of the sheer amount of attention Bennett pays to them. All of this has a slow, cinematic feel to it, once again very Lynchian, with the camera focused on slightly outdated Americana in a way that’s singularly creepy. You can almost hear the Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack.
Then, about halfway through the novel, the story takes a Turn. Not for the worse, mind you, but the veil of secrecy is lifted in such an abrupt way that it’s almost shocking. This break in the story is highlighted by an equally shocking change of format: the slow, deliciously weird narration of the story is interrupted by a series of interview transcripts that offer a historical perspective on what exactly caused everything we’re experiencing in the present. Going back to the soundtrack: imagine the Angelo Badalamenti music interrupted by the abrupt sound of a needle dragging across the vinyl, followed by a switch to the X-Files theme music.
Even though the explanation of what’s actually going on is heavily foreshadowed and uses some elements you may have seen before, it incorporates enough truly unique, genre-bending twists to be more than successful. There are some head-spinning moments in this novel, where the rug’s pulled out from under you and the entire story is turned upside down. I’m trying to be as vague as possible here, because this is one of those rare books where the plot summary on the back cover doesn’t give away any of the mysteries. It’s all still there for the reader to discover—which is one of the main reasons why this novel is so hard to put down. Let’s just say that, as disconcerting as the Big Reveal is, it also offers emotional depth and an amazing amount of food for thought.
I fear that some of this depth may get lost in the rush, given the shock of the change in tone and, more importantly, the way Robert Jackson Bennett speeds up the pace in that second phase of the novel. After the book’s somewhat slow and mysterious start, revelations and action scenes and a spectacularly climactic resolution are thrown at the reader at such a rapid and intense pace that it almost feels as if Bennett decided that, after 300 pages of sightseeing, it’s now time to floor it. Brace yourself—there won’t be many opportunities to come up for breath once you get to the last few hundred pages.
The story is told from a number of very different perspectives. Although Mona is the most important of these, there are several other interesting and convincingly realistic characters, including some representatives of the criminal element that operates on Wink’s outskirts (based in a seedy place called the Roadhouse, a much more lowlife version of Twin Peaks’ One-Eyed Jack’s) and a few mysterious inhabitants of the town whose nature eventually becomes clear. The perspective changes from chapter to chapter, and as diverse as these are, all of them are told with verve. Robert Jackson Bennett’s writing skills are on grand display here.
So, while the build-up may be slightly more enjoyable than the payoff, taken altogether American Elsewhere is a great novel. This is one of those stories that puts the reader on the wrong foot several times, starting with recognizable elements and then gradually adding to the weirdness factor until, by the end, your head is spinning. This was my first novel by Robert Jackson Bennett, but my goodness, it won’t be my last.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on Feb. 20th, 2013.