Review – American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

There’s a go-for-broke weirdness to American Elsewhere that’s almost irresistible. It’s set in Wink, New Mexico, a small town that doesn’t appear on any map and where ’50s nostalgia is enforced by a strict supernatural code. The town is bordered by a ramshackle motel where the caretaker plays checkers with ghosts and a truck stop where the local big shot sends his minions out to collect rat skull totems at the will of an evil typewriter. There are capricious ancient gods in the woods that offer pacts to the locals, and less tolerant creatures that make it unsafe to go out at night. And to top it all off, there’s an old government observatory on a nearby cliff where the lights have suddenly turned on, though no one’s worked there for decades.

Unsurprisingly, it’s kind of all over the place. It’s what the today kids might call a hot mess, if kids read books and they actually still say that.

Similarities to the work of Neil Gaiman and Stephen King are blatantly apparent, and they aren’t entirely flattering. Intentional or not, Bennett borrows a lot from other weird fantasy writers, from the folksy tone that inconsistently overwhelms the narration to the set pieces themselves. The book could be summed up as a story about American Gods that takes place Under A Dome. There’s a giant spider monster hidden in town and an info dump provided by a famous actor breaking character on a movie screen. Readers well-versed in genre fiction are likely to find these aspects of the novel embarrassing, as Bennett doesn’t display the light touch or assured hand of his obvious influences here[1].

A more positive comparison would be that American Elsewhere is very reminiscent of mid-career Bentley Little, minus his checklist of perversions. There’s tons of weird stuff going on, but at no point does ex-cop Mona Bright ever look up from what she’s doing and realize she’s giving a blowjob to her father. With plenty of short chapters and shifting viewpoints, the book cruises along when it’s focused on the town’s weirded-out inhabitants and the odd, imperious pandimensional beings that live amongst them. The alien misinterpretations of ¬†American “normal” are also a common Little theme. Anyone frustrated with Little’s fixation on sexual violence or who has fond memories of books like The Ignored will find a lot to like here.

But that’s ultimately the problem with American Elsewhere. There is a lot to like, but it doesn’t fit together at all. If the story was centered solely on the town’s inhabitants, there’s no doubt I’d be more forgiving of its loose ends. I’d probably be over the moon for it. But the book begins and ends by focusing on an insufferable interloper– the aforementioned Mona Bright– a very slow investigator who stumbles into Wink with a weighty, undeserved destiny hovering over her.

Like a lot of contemporary fantasy protagonists, Mona’s unapologetically bitchy and disinterested in everything around her. She sucks all the fun out of visiting a town where aliens are desperately trying to maintain a stereotypical American facade while simultaneously engaging in a murderous sibling rivalry stemming from pandimensional abandonment issues. She doesn’t belong there, and it’s hard to root for her to get her act together and save reality when it would be better if she was excised from it entirely. There’s enough going on in American Elsewhere already, and bookending it with the journey of a character who doesn’t even want to be there proves disastrous for a story that is too unwieldy to support any insignificant parts.

[1] That said, though King’s viewpoint is consistent, I would recommend American Elsewhere over the misanthropic, anti-bullying screed Under The Dome any day. Allow me to save you some time– Aliens are jerks and people will turn into rapists and serial killers at the drop of a dome.


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