Book Review: American Elsewhere, Robert Jackson Bennett (2013)

March 20th, 2013 3:35 pm by Kelly Garbato

One part each Supernatural & Stephen King, with a splash of Donnie Darko for that extra-trippy feeling.

fiveout of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Welcome to Wink, where the sky meets the earth – and bumps up against the skies of infinite other worlds!

No matter how far or long her travels, Mona Bright has never felt as though she belonged; never felt at home, or even whole, deep down in the innermost reaches of her soul. Her chronically depressed, possibly schizophrenic mother committed suicide when Mona was just four years old; after Laura’s death, Mona and her alcoholic father Earl resumed their nomadic lifestyle, chasing odd jobs through the southwest and finding common ground only in hunting blinds and improvised shooting ranges. As soon as she turned 18, Mona left home, eventually settling down in Houston where she became a police officer. She met a guy, fell in love, became pregnant – only to have to her hopes of fresh starts and second chances destroyed in one tragic instant. With this, Mona resumed a life of drinking and wandering. Running, you might say.

The source of Mona’s malaise never required a supernatural explanation. That is, until she lands in Wink, New Mexico.

Upon her father’s death, Mona unexpectedly inherits a house that her mother, Laura Gutierrez Alvarez, purchased before her life with Earl and Mona. Set in the shadow of the Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory, the town of Wink was established in the ‘60s as a support for the government-funded research lab. Though Coburn is long deserted, the town remains – and in an idyllic state: despite its harsh desert climate, all the lawns in Wink are forever green and perfectly manicured. The sky is always a brilliant shade of blue, and at night an oddly pink moon shines down upon the residents. Divorce is unheard of, and all the television sets are tuned to the 1980s. Think: Leave It to Beaver meets Roswell.

With less than two weeks to spare, Mona speeds off to Wink to claim her inheritance – and hopefully learn more about the mother who is but a distant, painful memory.

More disconcerting to Mona than Wink’s odd, occasionally foreboding ambiance is the life her mother lived here. The sad, paranoid woman Mona knew is nowhere to be seen. In her place, Mona finds a happy, sociable, competent woman who is a complete stranger to her. Even more shocking: Laura wasn’t part of the support staff in Wink, but rather a research scientist at Coburn. Laura Alvarez, mentally ill, unemployed wife of alcoholic oil jockey Earl Bright III, once had a doctorate in physics and was second in charge to only to Dr. Coburn himself. What could have happened to Laura in Wink that caused her to fall so far?

As Mona investigates her mother’s life and work, she begins to uncover that which is best left “unseen” in Wink. Laura’s trail leads Mona on a journey of self-discovery – which not-so-coincidentally coincides with a similar awakening for the town’s otherworldly inhabitants. Mona has unwittingly stumbled into a homecoming-slash-civil war between the people from elsewhere.

The plot is wonderfully weird and touches upon a number of supernatural and sci-fi staples: aliens, multiple universes, cosmic bruising, time travel, body snatchers. An eclectic mix of The X-Files, Supernatural (especially the Season 6 finale “Let It Bleed,” in which H.P. Lovecraft opens a door to Purgatory and the “monster” otherwise known as Dr. Visyak escapes), Stephen King (pick a novel! any novel!), Eureka, and Donnie Darko (it’s the rabbit, stupid!), American Elsewhere is an engaging read. Part science fiction, part horror, part fantasy, part mystery, it defies easy classification – which only adds to its charm.

Additionally, American Elsewhere briefly touches upon racism, homophobia, and sexism. Though the cast of characters could hardly be called “diverse” – most of Wink’s residents are white, middle- to upper-class, engaged in heterosexual relationships, etc. – those few people who don’t neatly fit into Wink’s idealized 1950s mold call attention to Wink’s patriarchal construction. Mona is unequivocally described as Latina – while father Earl is “lily white,” Mona has her mother’s Mexican looks: brown skin (browner than Laura’s, in fact) and dark hair and eyes. In a town that’s 98% white, Mona at first feels conspicuous – yet the issue of her ethnicity never comes up: “It feels as if the citizens of Wink have gotten used to people different from them.” (page 119). Given that Wink is located in New Mexico, its overwhelming whiteness is itself conspicuous.

As is the absence of divorce in Wink. However, we soon see that not all partnerships are happy ones: neighbors Margaret and Helena are both trapped in their marriages, the only respite from which is a brief moment of physical contact, shared from opposite sides of the fence, but once a month. Divorce is forbidden, but homosexuality carries with it a possible death sentence. In their quest to recreate the idyllic “all-American” town, the people from elsewhere have adopted some of the most pernicious of human traits.

A strong 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 on Amazon. Though I greatly enjoyed it (so much so that I’m tempted to try out some of Robert Jackson Bennett’s other works), the ending lacks the expected emotional punch. Unlike some of my all-time favorites, American Elsewhere isn’t a story I’ll be pondering long after I’ve turned the last page.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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One Response to “Book Review: American Elsewhere, Robert Jackson Bennett (2013)”

  1. Book Review: City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett (2014) » V for Vegan: Says:

    […] are a real hit-or-miss for me – but I knew of Robert Jackson Bennett from his previous book, American Elsewhere, which I enjoyed immensely. As it turns out, City of Stairs? Even […]

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