LitStack Review: ‘American Elsewhere’ by Robert Jackson Bennett

by Sharon Browning
American ElsewhereAmerican Elsewhere
Robert Jackson Bennett
First Edition: February 12, 2013
ISBN 978-0-316-20020-2

Remember “Twin Peaks”, the strange and wonderful television series that ran from 1990 – 1991?  Remember how it seemed like you were in a beautiful, rustic Washington state setting, filled with beautiful, rustic people living typical American lives?  But then, how weird things started happening, and you realized how very bizarre Twin Peaks – and all the people who lived there – were?  And you loved it?

If you do, then you are going to love American Elsewhere.

No, American Elsewhere is not a retelling of “Twin Peaks”, but it does take the elements of an outsider brought to an idyllic-seeming small town who slowly discovers that not only are things in this perfect setting not as they seem, they are much, much worse.  And, as the story progresses, those bizarre things begin to manifest themselves as threatening and very, very dangerous.

It’s marvelous.

The central character in American Elsewhere is a close to middle-aged, divorced, ex-cop washout.  Mona Bright has not had a happy life.  Her sad, psychotic mother killed herself when Mona was nine, and her father was not exactly the nurturing type.  It seems like every time Mona has a chance for normalcy and even a chance at being happy, something comes along to rip her life apart again.  So she finds herself at age 38 on the road, drifting, lacking purpose or companionship.

Then after her father dies she finds out that she has inherited a house which her long gone mother apparently owned, in a little town in New Mexico that goes by the name of Wink.  When the legality of the inheritance is confirmed, Mona figures that she might as well check it out.  Perhaps the abandoned property holds some clue as to what her mother was like, back before Mona was born, long before she told her young daughter to wait outside until after the police came, and then crawled into the bathtub and blew her brains out.

So Mona heads across Texas in her beat up red Charger to New Mexico, because she has nothing better to do, and not much time to do it (the inheritance expires in a few weeks).  But there’s a complication – she can’t find Wink on any map, and the Department of Transportation has never heard of it; there aren’t even any records on the property tax rolls.

Cue the suspenseful music.

But even though Mona has dropped out, she hasn’t given up.  She can’t find Wink, but she can find landmarks that appear to be near it, and leaps of faith aren’t so hard when you have no other options.  She eventually finds herself in Wink, and the town is, well, beautiful.  It’s exactly what small towns are supposed to be.  Quaint, tasteful houses, manicured lawns, people who actually wave to each other and say hello when you pass by.  Oh, there’s a bit of wariness about strangers – they don’t get many in a little out-of-the-way town like Wink, but even though some of the townsfolk are a bit perplexing and some of the customs are awfully old fashioned, most of the people are open and friendly and most of the vibe is downright charming.

But wait, there’s that ominous music again….

Mona is a bit bewildered that no one in Wink – even those who profess to have lived there for a long time – knows of or remembers her mother, even though it’s clear that she lived in the house on Larchmont Street for a spell.  Mona has even been able to piece together that her mother came to Wink to work at the nearby (and since shuttered and abandoned) Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory as some sort of lab assistant or scientist (although this is news to Mona and hard for her to believe, given that her mother didn’t seem engaged enough to have ever have had a career let alone one needing an advanced degree).  Furthermore, Mona came across an old Polaroid picture that shows her mother – in the house in Wink – at what appears to be some sort of party or celebration, and her mother looks young and beautiful and, well, happy.  Incandescently happy.  Mona desperately wants to find a remnant of that person, to learn what her mother was like before her world came crashing down and to find out what it was that changed her into someone who was so unhappy, so lifeless, so broken.  If Mona can learn that, perhaps she can heal some of the wounds in her own life, find her own sense of purpose that so far has eluded her.

Little does she know where her search will take her…

Author Robert Jackson Bennett has taken what sounds like a somewhat dusty story line and developed it into a much deeper, more nuanced offering than the straightforward tale-of-the-weird that you might expect.  Wink is not a town that has been taken over; it has layers.  It doesn’t have secrets as much as it has rules about what can and cannot be talked about, and it doesn’t have mandates, it has arrangements.  There are no monsters (per se, or yet it seems) and yet the people of Wink know that it’s not safe to go out at night because once you leave your house, you may not be able to find your way back again.  It’s a threat on low simmer rather than high burn, and the question is, is that too much to ask to live in a place where life is beautiful and good and – pert’ near perfect?

That’s a good question, and one that goes through a monumental rethinking in the course of the book.

The characters in American Elsewhere are very well written; clear and yet not rote, interesting but not muddied with too much extemporaneous material.  There’s not just Mona and various key citizens of Wink, but also a group of shady characters who are attached to The Roadhouse, a seedy bar and strip club a ways outside of town.  The management of The Roadhouse – rough men and women, but not without some redeeming qualities… well, kind of – have a certain arrangement with a fellow who they assume is from Wink and who appears to be part of a chain of drug suppliers.  They don’t really know; they don’t ask many questions because the money is so dang good.  So what if they end up having to do some really strange things that involve rabbit skulls, and have to go out at times and dig up these squares of incredibly heavy metal, and what if occasionally one of the prostitutes who is recruited to go down into the tunnels to retrieve something bizarre comes back a bit unhinged, or that occasionally their work involves dealing with blood and a body or two?  There’s always a payoff that makes it worthwhile – well, for most of them, most of the time.  There is a certain, um, casualty rate and the causes for the losses tend to be… not exactly normal.  But was there mention of the money being good?  And all the hookers and blow a fellow might want.

Very interesting, indeed.

American Elsewhere is a book that will draw you in with its writing and its unique take on the supernatural trope of perfect-town-that-isn’t-so-perfect.  At times, it’s very witty and somewhat silly.  At other times, it’s downright touching.  It has mystery and science and mysticism and just plain weirdness.   It has characters you know you should be wary of, but you like them anyway.  There are others you are drawn to but you just can’t bring yourself to trust them.  And then there’s the gore.  Oh, yes, there is horror and gore, as well.  Not much, but enough to keep it real, happening when it should be happening.  No fade to black, here.

It’s almost like Stephen King and David Lynch sat down together to write a story, one goading the other, the other restraining the first, and both of them drinking a helluva lot of whiskey in the meantime.

Which means American Elsewhere may not be a book that everyone will want to read, but if you like the macabre, if you like the bizarre and some horror and some mystery and a good helping of the supernatural appearing from many angles, if you don’t mind a touch of debauchery and a bit of gore, then you are going to love American Elsewhere.  And unlike our imaginary Stephen and David scenario, no whiskey is necessary – but you might want to keep it close by, just in case.  Pour a glass for Mona, too, while you’re at it.  Poor girl will probably need some before you turn the final page.

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