Desolation of Avenues Untold

By Brandon Hobson

Civil Coping Mechanisms
August 2015

Reviewed by Jason Christian


What a romp and whirlwind Brandon Hobson has produced with Desolation of Avenues Untold, a novel so varying and dynamic it defies easy classification. Like Hobson's first novel, Deep Ellum, which was set in Dallas, Desolation is set in Texas, in a mythical city called Desolation City, whose streets more than a little resemble those of New York. But that's just the beginning of the simulacra peppered throughout this novel that falls somewhere between postmodern satire and Bolaño-esque noir.

The story concerns the search for alleged pornographic film reels made by Charlie Chaplin. Everybody seems to want these films, and some will go to ridiculous lengths to get them. At the center of all this turmoil, we find the hapless Bornfeldt (Born) Chaplin, a divorced, middle school guidance counselor in his mid-forties, shuffling along through life, trying to stave off ennui with marijuana and classic rock. Born is a man whose twelve-year-old son seems brighter than he is and a man who unfortunately possesses the surname Chaplin. All around him lurk unseen mysteries and dangers: an underground snuff-film club, a corrupt Oklahoma politician, a commune of dwarves practicing witchcraft, rampant and perhaps rabid armadillos, tornadoes, petty criminals, drug addicts, and ghosts of forgotten Hollywood stars. You'll want to imagine this novel alongside other acclaimed "alt-lit" favorites such as Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot, and even Infinite Jest: fragmented, multivalent, and prophetic. In fact, you might say this book is indebted to such works, that it borrows and outright steals from them in a Kathy Acker sort of way. Or maybe these synchronicities are simply inevitable.

The emotional and physical landscapes in this book are manifold. Besides the basic story lines, there are disparate intermittent vignettes threaded into the narrative, some only loosely related to Charlie Chaplin. Some are muted and just add texture, but one, a particularly well-written piece about a couple who chance their luck at a Nevada casino, could stand alone as an excellent short story. This section takes the reader deep inside of gambling culture (a distracting, void-filling endeavor), exposes the woman to self-proclaimed "superstitious people," and perhaps more than anything showcases Hobson's storytelling ability and topical range.

Sometimes the novel has a bit of a Robert Durst true-crime, Texas-macabre feel. At times you feel like a guest at a party hosted by the Manson family. Like in one scene, when Born gets invited to a party full of strangers, whose enthusiastic host chums it up with everyone in the room, laughing all the while, then casually sets up a projector and starts a film called Beasts and Boys. The film is horrendous, involving stuff I don't even want to type, but the response from the crowd is one of casual enjoyment. This is a ritual to these people, as natural and innocuous as brushing one's teeth. Throughout the novel we are reminded of subcultures we'd like to forget exist, but never for long. Just like in life, when people seek distractions from the difficulties they daily endure, distractions which are examined throughout this text, the novel itself gives relief to the reader with hilarious turns, as in a catalogue of "snuff" films that includes one described as, "Larry, 24 minutes, 35 mm, Payne. A devout Mennonite comes to terms with being sexually aroused by a man dressed as Ludwig van Beethoven."

With all of its black humor, and its playful use of names—Thom Yorke University; Dr. Richard Swaggert (a jab at the televangelist Jimmy?)—we'd be tempted to shove this novel into the "alt-lit" category and leave it there. And certainly its publisher, Civil Coping Mechanisms, is a preeminent publisher of such titles. But what does "alt-lit" even mean vis-à-vis other works of fiction? Is it just a way to classify something published by an indie press? Is it shorthand for saying that a book is daring and current and wacky and destined to sell few copies?

Of course there has always been a sort of "alt-lit" in America, much of it remaining in the subterranean recesses of our culture, far outside the canon, and only once in a while clawing its way to the light (or attaining fame through censorship), like Tropic of Cancer or Naked Lunch. Perhaps Desolation and its ilk are the contemporary incarnation of that tradition, and indeed some books labeled as "alt-lit" are making it into bookstores and into readers' hands. In other words, the best of these books are more than their fireworks and jokes. And I think this is one of those better books.

At some point in the text, as though establishing a credo for the author himself, a fetish filmmaker says to Born, "The reaction against traditional storytelling of our time is a goddamn bold move. It isn't necessarily what we discover from the acting or imagery as much as what we discover about ourselves. This is what I'm interested in. To blur fiction with nonfiction." Hobson gives us a clue here as to his own intentions: boldness, a blurring of fact and fiction. Like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, this book sometimes feels like a true account of "real" events. The only thing missing is the first person voice. We get historical accounts of Chaplin, personal anecdotes from those who knew him, and excerpts from news articles related to his life. I found myself googling to find out what was real and what wasn't, but then I had to fall back to O'Brien: "Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, 'Is is true?' and if the answer matters, you got your answer." O'Brien was talking about war, but the same applies here. Did it move you? Yes? Then it doesn't matter what is true. The "truth" is what emotional resonance is gleaned from the writing, not facts. Parsing the facts only kills the mood.

And, truth be told, the mood of this book is more serious than comical. More than anything, this novel examines the desperate search for happiness. Everyone wants these Chaplin films, and I'm not exactly sure why. Are money and intrigue and novelty enough to drive people to the ends of the earth? Sadly, it seems for many they are. Perhaps the war metaphor wasn't off base, after all. Perhaps even the warmongers are just looking for happiness.

In a final heartfelt passage, one character says to his struggling brother, "Try not to be so lonely." The brother is a lost kid caught up in something bigger than he is, desperately hoping to give meaning to his life, and who doesn't make the best decisions. Maybe with this passage Hobson wants to challenge the reader. Maybe he is saying, here's what the contemporary world has given you to "not be so lonely": drugs, social media, pornography, gadgets, licit and illicit "entertainment." But isn't something wrong with those false solutions to happiness? Not wrong in a moral sense, just vapid and sometimes icky and admittedly absurd? That's the universalism of this novel. Aren't we all just searching for happiness? Aren't we all trying to not be lonely?