Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Tucumcari: A Book Review

As fiction readers, we have certain expectations when it comes to a novel. We expect conflict; we expect a plot; we expect well-developed, sympathetic characters; and we expect a build-up to a satisfying ending, which often brings some kind of redemption or at least ties up the various threads of the story. Just on a basic level, this is what we expect we’ll find, but that’s not saying that’s what we should find.

True, novels that defy those expectations are taking a big risk. Such novels run the risk of being called boring or pointless or navel-gazing. They run the risk of ending up on many “did-not-finish” piles. But, then again, it’s the novels that take these big risks that have the potential to be the most intriguing, the most surprising, and the most rewarding. That’s definitely the case with Patrick Park’s novel, Tucumcari (KERNPUNKT PRESS).

It’s hard to describe exactly what Tucumcari is beyond saying that it’s wholly engaging. Is it a roadless and buddy-less buddy-road trip book? Is it a story really more about the past than it is about the present or future? Is it a story that’s taking place at all or only in our unnamed protagonist’s troubled mind? What is truth and what is fabrication? To what extent can we trust the narrator of the tale? These and others are all intriguing questions that the novel raises. And, like with the best novels, the symbolic possibilities of what exactly this story represents are seemingly endless.

None of this is surprising considering that KERNPUNKT PRESS describes their aesthetic as follows on their website: “We enjoy symbolism, non-traditional plots, unique characters, taboo, and experimentation.  We like challenging.  In short, we value art over entertainment.”

Tucumcari begins with the protagonist waking to the realization that he has a wife or at least, “I should say I remember believing I have a wife. Why this occurs to me after so long is a mystery” (1).  From the jump, the narration already establishes that we can’t necessarily believe everything the narrator tells us. Does he have a wife or does he believe he has a wife and, like in life, is what we believe actually more of a truth for us than what is fact?

The narrator lives in a neighborhood that, if we are to believe him, is comprised entirely of men. Additionally, an endless precipitation of ash falls from the sky, coming from the town’s windowless factories. Our narrator tells us that he teaches English as a second language, and his students are largely made up of people who work in the factories. The significance of the ash and the itinerant workers is never fully explored, but they provide ample fodder for a reader who’d like to go deeper with symbolic interpretation.

As the narrator plans for his road trip to the town of Tucumcari where, in his mind, he will find and reunite with his wife, he decides that he must also take his childhood friend, Boyd Delmarco. They’ve grown apart since childhood (if they were ever truly friends), but the narrator has been a faithful listener to Boyd’s very popular radio show. The narrator tells us that Boyd is no longer on the air because Boyd’s “lungs are turning to glass. The capillaries are crystalizing. The bronchia are turning rigid and transparent. Soon he will be as fragile as a wine goblet. If he falls, his chest will shatter” (25). The narrator attributes this to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which is a very serious lung disease, but the actual symptoms are scar tissue, not tissue turning to glass. The narration of Tucumcari almost reads like conspiracy theory… with just enough grounding in truth to be believable.

Research. It’s something I found myself doing several times while reading the novel. Of course, doing research sounds tedious but, in the case of Tucumcari, part of its pleasure is the questioning of its very convincing details. So many times I found myself reading and then asking, “I wonder if that’s true?” And then off to Google I’d go.

As the narrator prepares for his road trip, he recalls many memories, especially of his parents. He remembers his father looking up at the sky at a murmuration (giant, flying whorl) of starlings. The father says, “It’s how they fool hawks into thinking they’re all one big bird” (82). This explanation is partly true. Bird experts, instead, hypothesize that the murmuration actually makes it more difficult for a predatory bird to select a single starling to attack. Of course, either explanation could be correct. Is the narrator’s father any less or more correct than the hypothesizing bird experts? Or, again, does what we believe become our own truth… the catalyst, for good or for bad, of our actions?

The narrator remembers that his father was among the soldiers who worked on the atomic bomb. The experience left him with a founded, or perhaps unfounded, paranoia which saw him continuously moving his family from place to place because he “knew enough about radiation to know you were never really safe from it and sitting around in a hole or under a sofa wasn’t going to do much to save your life. His plan, besides trying to avoid places where the bomb might be dropped, was to be ready to outrun the radiation. Which is why we had boxes we never unpacked and why we never bought any furniture. Everything we owned could be put into our station wagon” (90).

So certain was the father that there would eventually be an atomic war that he lived his life acting according to that “truth.” Isn’t this true of all of us in some way? Isn’t that just the subjectivity of truth?

At another point, however, the narrator creates a complete fabrication when he explains that Sandusky, Ohio is sinking and sliding into Lake Erie “at the rate of one inch per year. This doesn’t seem like much, but if you’ve lived in Sandusky for a while, you notice things. You notice that the walk from your house to your mailbox at the curb is much steeper now. You notice that the angle of the sun is different, which makes the light different, which makes sunsets more spectacular, especially in the fall as the days grow shorter. The days seem even shorter because of the sinking and sliding” (98).

The narrator also tells us that President Eisenhower was inspired to invest in our current interstate system by the autobahn in Germany, which is true. In this same section of the book, the narrator says, “The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways also required that one mile in every five must be straight. These straight sections would be used as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies” (105) which is not true.

Again, a blending of fact and fiction that becomes an important component in Tucumcari’s effect on the reader. Did the narrator’s father really help work on the atomic bomb? Is the narrator in sound mental health? What exactly is meant by the book’s anti-climactic, yet mesmerizing ending?

Tucumcari is a book for our times as our own perception of what is fact and what is fiction is tested every day, leading us to causes and quests that, like with the novel’s narrator, might not be causes and quests at all. Tucumcari does not play by the traditional rules of novel-writing, and it is that which makes it all the more intriguing, mysterious and, well… novel.

Finally, Tucumcari exists because a small press took a chance on it. Small presses need more than reviews like this one; they need readers of the review to take the next step, and that's to buy the book. I am going to provide a link to KERNPUNKT's catalog page. If you buy directly from the press, both the author and the press make more money. But, you can (if you insist) find Tucumcari on Amazonopoly too.

Purchase Tucumcari: here

Jeff "Van" Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. In 2022, Montag Press will publish his dystopian novel, Falling Sky. His latest collection, The Neighborhood Division: Stories, is now out through Whistling Shade Press and available: here.

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