Brian Francis Slattery: Spaceman Blues: a love song

I ran across a mention of this somewhere; it sounded interesting, and the library had it. I picked it up and read a couple of random bits, thought “not for me” and put it back and wandered off, but wandered back and flipped through it again a couple more times before deciding that there was obviously something there that interested me and I should check it out. There’s a lot of description in the book, and I’m not a very visual reader, so long passages of description generally make my eyes glaze over, but something with his style made it interesting. I liked this much more than I expected and plan on buying it eventually.

The front cover blurb is from Harlan Ellison® (“What a breathless, mad tornado of words!”; I’ve never actually read him); the back blurbs compare it to Thomas Pynchon twice (tried and failed a couple of times), Phil Dick for the plot (a plus; I’ve read most, though not in at least ten years), and to China Miéville (bounced off of due to style) and Cory Doctorow (meh) for style. These are mostly not endorsements that I find appealing, but there were also several instances of “surreal” and surreal is always worth trying.

Manuel Rodrigo de Guzmán González is missing after his apartment exploded; his lover Wendell Apogee wants to know why. Wendell starts by talking to Manuel’s other friends and then his enemies and follows leads farther and farther away from his acquaintances. Manuel is the sort of person who knows everyone; at one point there is someone who keeps track of relationships with strings on nails, and Manuel is at the center of everything; that person is afraid that without Manuel, everything will fall apart. Manuel also has many enemies; he traffics in everything, including immigrants, drugs, and arms. Wendell eventually finds the city under the city (Darktown); he eventually fakes his death and moves there accompanied by Masoud, a former fighter pilot from Lebanon. Wendell reminds Masoud of his younger brother who he failed to protect, and he wants another chance to do the right thing. It’s hard to say anything else about the plot without spoiling any twists.

The setting is a very immigrant-heavy portion of New York, and the cast is extremely diverse; there are several Latino characters, but most of the others are from different cultures (and even the Latino characters are from everywhere that that description contains). I think there is a scene somewhere (a party, maybe?) where there are over a hundred languages being spoken. Wendell himself is white, but I kept thinking of him as African-American; I think I can blame the band Arrested Development for that (though the song was “Mr. Wendal” and the video featured an old man). The book mostly follows Wendell and is in third-person present tense, with flashbacks and glimpses of the futures of various characters in their appropriate tenses. The present tense took some getting used to, but after a few sections, I stopped really noticing it. It has seven chapters in which something happens; each chapter has named sections that are a few pages long.

The only things that bothered me were very minor: the police officers were named Trout and Salmon, which I found a bit jarring; and the end of the book (it ended). Even though the book just kind of ended, there were glimpses of most of the major characters’ futures throughout the book, so even if their immediate fates were uncertain, their future was at least mentioned.

I really liked this book, but can’t really say why; it just worked for me. I liked the characters, was interested in the plot, and liked the style. It’s annoying that I can go on for ages about things I don’t like or even things I find vaguely annoying, but can’t really find anything to say about things I like. It might have been easier if I had written it up when I read it instead of a couple of weeks later, though. The blurbs on the book are all extremely positive, and all of the praise is merited. I would not have guessed that this was a first novel, and I hope this book is successful for the author and that he continues to write.

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