5 December, 2022

LitStack Recs: How to Read to Read a Sentence and How to Write One & American Elsewhere

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

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.

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. Perhaps the abandoned property holds some clue as to what her mother was like, long before she told her young daughter to wait outside until after the police came then crawled into the bathtub and blew her brains out.

So Mona heads in her beat up red Charger to New Mexico, because she has nothing better to do. 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 eventually finds herself in Wink, and the town is beautiful, 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, 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 the vibe is downright charming.

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

Mona is bewildered that no one in Wink 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 observatory, and came across an old Polaroid picture that shows her mother at the house in Wink looking young and beautiful and 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. 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. 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 (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 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 citizens of Wink, but also a group of shady characters who are attached to The Roadhouse, a seedy bar and strip club outside of town. The management of The Roadhouse have a certain arrangement with a fellow who they assume is from Wink who appears to be part of a chain of drug suppliers. But 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 go out at times to dig up 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? There’s always a payoff that makes it worthwhile, for most of them, most of the time.

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. No fade to black, here.

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

Which means American Elsewhere may not be a book for everyone, 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.

—Sharon Browning


  • Lauren Alwan

    Lauren Alwan’s fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, the Southern Review, the Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, in the Bellevue Literary Review. She is the recipient of a First Pages Prize, the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, and.a citation of Notable in Best American Essays. Her essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, World Literature Today, The Rumpus, The Millions, Writer's Digest, and others. She is a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review. Follow her on Twitter at @lauren_alwan and learn more at www.laurenalwan.com