As the title of Brian Francis Slattery's promising first novel suggests, "Spaceman Blues: A Love Song" is indeed a love song. Or, more precisely, "Spaceman Blues" is a veritable collage of love stories, each heartbreaking narrative interwoven with the others to form a complex whole. The love stories presented are invariably bittersweet, challenging, intricate and unsentimental. The stories often involve as much pain as pleasure, and they certainly do not grant transcendence, enlightenment or prosperity to those parties involved. But, avoiding saccharine mawkishness, the novel also avoids the trap of indulging in easy cynicism. What we are left with is a moving, heartfelt ode to the experience of losing oneself, happily or unhappily, willingly or unwillingly, in someone or something completely other. Reading the book is a moving and challenging experience, and not one you will soon forget.
It is also, it must be pointed out, an absolute barrel of fun. As a counterpoint to the poignant reserved realism of character, the plot of the novel is a raucous jaunt through the tropes of modern genre writing. Manuel González, a mysterious loner whose life sits at the nexus of the book and its characters, has gone missing. This is not in itself rare, but then his apartment explodes, and his countless acquaintances and friends in a vibrantly painted New York City begin to ask questions -- soon it becomes clear: Manuel is gone.
Enter Wendell Apogee, Manuel's lover. Apogee, like countless protagonists before him, begins a quest -- a quest to find his True Love. On the way he will cross paths with a pair of proto-noir police detectives named Trout and Salmon, with former-and-future cult members and Latinas on the prowl, with Muslim diner owners and Dominican Mafia dons and the members of a washed-up Australian '80s band. He will encounter apocalyptic death cults and aliens, and wander through raves, cockfights and an underground city called Darktown. He may, in fact, become a superhero before the tale is done, though I leave that for the reader to discover.
Slattery's command of all of the disparate elements of "genre writing" is adept and assured. He moves from idea to idea flawlessly and seemingly without effort, showing his deft command of both the elements themselves and the writing in which they are embedded. There is no way for such a story to make sense, of course, and Slattery does not make any real effort to justify his choices in realist terms. Instead, he uses the elements in the novel for effect, as tools by which to emphasize the emotive importance of the love affairs presented in the novel. It is this dynamic tension, between the poignant and realistic human relationships and their otherworldly environments, that propels the novel forward. The tempo steps up quickly after the small prologue and rarely relents.
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Of all of the many love stories, one deserves special recognition: that of the author himself and the city of the New York. Rarely has NYC been described so effectively, so movingly. Slattery has no time for Wall Street, has no time for expensive eateries and off-key musicals. Slattery's New York is hallucinatory, multicultural, poor. It consists of Dominican delis, Lebanese coffee shops, dirty charming bars, BYOB gatherings in abandoned buildings. Slattery's New York is built of humans, by humans, and often on top of humans. It is the very antithesis of the New York portrayed by sitcoms and popular magazines, and it is at once a grimier and thoroughly more engaging place, and I for one would spend an endless amount of time there, in prose or without.
"Spaceman Blues" is not without its problems. The prose, while always inventive and original, does get a bit overheated at times, especially early in the novel, when the author seems so intent on reaching another scene where he can describe another quirky neighborhood that he abandons dramatic scenes before they have been thoroughly developed. The underground city here, Darktown, comes off at times like a flat reflection of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or any of a dozen other similar under-cities, and Slattery's New York is so riveting that the imaginary city pales in comparison. The plot clunks more than a bit in places. But these are quibbles. For a first novel, "Spaceman Blues" is a wonderful read. I will be on the lookout for the second.