Wire to Wire

By Scott Sparling

Tin House Books
June 2011
375 pages


Reviewed by Daniel Rivas


In 1995's "Against the 70's," Mike Watt declares:

The kids of today should defend themselves against the 70's.
It's not reality.
It's just someone else's sentimentality.
It won't work for you.

Watt was taking aim at an America that was culturally burned-out. The grand project for social reconstruction and personal fulfillment had evolved into a strange stew of Nixon and Laugh-In, into Coke teaching the world to sing. This was the America that wanted to rein in what felt like loose ends and "get tough," but was also standing firmly upon the rock of postwar prosperity, happy to let pleasure and personal whim be its guide, to "take it easy." Nothing was easy. Vietnam did not end easy. Cities continued to burn in protest of racial inequality. Factories throughout America closed and reopened overseas. The nation's infrastructure was beginning to rust, and a directionless discontent was settling in. Most of America decided to retreat into the suburbs, the "me" generation and Reagan's misty, sepia-toned "Morning in America."

Scott Sparling's debut novel Wire to Wire is the story of Michael Slater, a video editor in New York at the nadir of that era, 1980, who years before ran into a high voltage wire while riding on the roof of a boxcar. The river of electricity scrambled his brain, but it also gave him the ability to watch his past on his editing monitors.

The story revealed on the screens follows Slater to Arizona and rehab, where he had hoped to rewire his brain. Adrift, he decides to go back to Michigan to see his friend Harp, the other man on the roof of that boxcar, the one Slater pushed out of the way just before his own head hit the wire. Slater tries to get the deposit on his rented house from his landlord, Cassie, who offers up a broken-down Ford Ranchero instead, which Slater takes. But a "barrel-chested man with the wide face of a butcher" named Dickinson has money stashed in the car. Dickinson tries to kill Slater, but Slater stabs him and escapes.

Slater's friend Harp is a jaded bodhisattva of the rails, a high-minded drop-out from the settled world, restless and guiltily ambivalent about both lives he lives—the one in Michigan with Lane, his glue-sniffing girlfriend, and the simple procedural order of navigating the train lines. He believes that "the highway made you crazy and the railroad made you sane. That was the peril of the rails. Sanity in a crazed world." When Slater arrives in Michigan he doesn't find Harp, only Lane, "all raw material… Her hair fell across her face in strands and there was a crescent of blood in her left eye." Slater takes up glue and Lane, but Harp soon arrives from his wandering on the rails and Slater tries to keep this guilty secret, even as he becomes more and more infatuated with Lane.

As in any good crime novel, the characters push the story inexorably forward. In Wire to Wire, Dickinson's pursuit of Slater to Michigan lurks throughout the first half, but the villain from beginning to end is Lane's brother Charlie. Charlie is a pimp and a drug dealer who is good at losing money and making enemies. His scheme to fix all that is to blow up some half-built condos he owns for the insurance money and to set Harp up for the fall. He also has a body to get rid of and seems content to pile up more bodies. Lane is dependent on him for a job and to keep their dead mother's house, but she shares a dark secret with Charlie for which she cannot forgive either of them.

The characters are as complex as the plot and Sparling does a masterful job of tangling them up while keeping the details lucid and telling. One detail that stands out from the others is revealed in the background and is only mentioned a few times. Lane and Slater witness a TV replay of Karl Wallenda's famous fall in Puerto Rico during their Hendrix and glue-heightened first encounter. The famously defiant man on the wire resonates with the time and with Slater's character. Slater, looking at the world from his disconnected vantage point, sees beauty in the ephemeral and the self-destructive. He's drawn to Lane and her glue precisely because they are thin and airy. He creates for himself a world of vapors.

Although the New York present is kept at the edges of the novel's plot, it emerges as Wire to Wire's spiritual core. In New York, Slater is even more lost and scattered than he was in either Michigan or Arizona. He wanders unfeeling in and out of strip clubs popping "Smiley O's," his life a timeless drone. Two characters keep him rooted in the real world, especially Dimi, who shows him affection and concern that he can never quite meet.

As Slater flees north through New Mexico, past the Santa Fe Mountains, he thinks:

One of them wasn't really a mountain, or so Slater had heard, but a hollowed-out armory. "Warhead Warehouse" it was called. Who knew if it was true? It was the sort of thing people liked to believe. Maybe it reminded them of how false the surface is. How much lies hidden. Or maybe it was the idea of containment, the vault sealed tight and all that.

The characters in Wire to Wire have a funny way of simultaneously trying to cover over the bombs in their pasts and unearthing them. Like Chekov's gun introduced in the first act, these bombs must inevitably explode, but unlike most genre fiction, which revels in the explosion and the gory aftermath, Sparling is interested in the human things that survive the blasts. We know from the beginning that Slater survives the events in Michigan, but we are still pulled forward by the questions we have about him. Not the bone and blood questions of survival, but less precise ones that we all ask ourselves from time to time: What are the wires that run between people and how do we walk them without falling?