Steve Erickson’s novels rank among the wildest prodigies in recent American fiction. His 1985 debut, “Days Between Stations,” was haunted by a pair of eyes in a bottle. His 2007 breakthrough, “Zeroville” — the basis of a forthcoming James Franco movie — whipped up a layer cake as bizarre as it was scrumptious, combining the ghosts of old Hollywood, children finding sanctuary in punk rock, and much more.
Nevertheless, Erickson can’t abide having his work called “experimental.” “I hear the word,” he once told an interviewer, “and reach for my revolver.” Perhaps I ought to suit up in Kevlar, then, because I can’t help but think of his new “Shadowbahn” as the best kind of experiment: provocative throughout, alive with laughter and surprising in the ways it stirs the heart.
If “Shadowbahn” weren’t such an outlier, plot summary wouldn’t present such a conundrum. Although there are suspenseful stretches, by and large the story is driven by sheer invention. Each imaginative leap lands on the twinned themes of American music and history. A typical taste of the book’s pleasures comes when, out of nowhere, the text breaks into double columns for a rock review of a group called “J. Paul Ramone & the Beatlebubs.” The review itself cracks a few jokes, and relates a surreal encounter, but it stakes a serious claim: “What I’m telling here is your story, America.”
To maintain this song-and-story focus, the novel depends on two sets of characters and a pervading spooky image. The latter provides the opening, as Manhattan’s fallen twin towers spring up out of the Dakota Badlands. The power of this late-20th-century temple of commerce, born again on the ancient sacred grounds of the Sioux, is implied in a media catchphrase Erickson invents: “American Stonehenge.” Still more evocative is the music the buildings emit: a different song for every set of ears.
But the narrative never lingers. Instead, it shifts between two very different sets of siblings. One is a white Californian named Parker and his adoptive Ethiopian sister, Zema. They’re driving east out of L.A., and at first their only music is “their father’s old playlists,” their only tensions those you’d expect between adolescents so close yet so unalike.
Far stranger, meantime, is the situation of another protagonist. This golem comes to life on the fatal 93rd floor of the resurrected towers: Jesse Garon Presley, the stillborn twin of Elvis Presley. In time, he, too, begins to travel, but by unearthly means and through alternate histories. After all, isn’t Jesse himself an alternate? Like the kids out of L.A., doesn’t he travel with a sibling? Whether he visits Andy Warhol’s Factory or some Hamburg dive where the Beatles played, he bumps up against reminders that he “exists within the shadow of the other life,” that of the Presley with the “wolf’s purr and wildcat moan,” the “angel-snarl.”
Those turns of phrase showcase Erickson’s wised-up lyricism, almost tweet-ready. He reins in his materials, staying this side of precious even when his alt-John F. Kennedy — like most of the historical figures, never named but unmistakable — reveals the narrative premise: “The . . . zeitgeist is missing a piece.” If America got Jesse, not Elvis, where would that leave us? And where does it leave a novel, when it doesn’t follow a few characters so much as brood over a whole culture, investigating how the nation’s “root was a blues”?
Inquiries like that, although they ruminate on Jim Crow, 9/11 and the Ghost Dance, preclude tragedy in the classic sense. Rather, much of the book’s second half is spent, as one character puts it, “waxing philosophical.” But if this is Erickson’s most meditative novel — thinking about music rather than, like “Zeroville,” concocting a movie career — it’s also his most hilarious. A page-long disquisition on “Stormy Weather” may not sound like fun but, the narrator notes that the Lena Horne staple was by the same man who wrote “Over the Rainbow” and “Come Rain or Come Shine”: “It would be logical to assume he has meteorology on the brain.”
That quip appears in the notes for a playlist put together by Parker and Zema’s father.This musical commentary takes up a good deal of the text, as I say, and generates no drama on its own, but, on the other hand, the brother and sister sharing their notes provides some of the liveliest sequences. They, too, travel into another reality, the Disunion territories and, finally, the supernatural highway known as Shadowbahn. Also, they discover the secret to the towers’ music. In the process, these siblings come to embody a more harmonic vision for the country, a big two-hearted slipstream that may yet carry us away from “the hellhounds on the trail.”
John Domini’s most recent book is the story collection “Movieola!”
By Steve Erickson
Blue Rider. 300 pp. $27