American Elsewhere: Flirting with the Weird

Cover of American ElsewhereI read several reviews for Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere and became increasingly intrigued because none of them could seem to explain what exactly this book was about. After reading it, I see the problem — it really doesn’t quite fit into any particular mold, something that Bennett has mentioned himself in a few interviews. That being said, the book is one that sucked me in immediately and which I had a hard time putting down.

The first chapter pulls you into a kidnapping in progress. A man is forcibly taken from his home, driven out to the woods, and then left there — with a small rabbit skull on his chest. The skull then proceeds to kill(?) him. From there, the book just gets weirder.

The protagonist of the story is Mona Bright, whose father has just died. She has been mostly estranged from him since the suicide of her mother, but comes back to see to his final arrangements. He has left her an awesome car (which she was expecting) and a deed to a house her mother owned (which she had no idea about) in a strange town called Wink. The town of Wink is a mixture of Los Alamos and Stepford — a former haunt of brainy scientists gone all Pleasantville after the lab shut down. As soon as Mona gets there, she realizes that something isn’t right. From her odd encounter with the motel manager, to the even weirder lady in the town records office, she becomes more and more entangled in the town and the mysterious history of the mother that she never really knew.

The reason that the reviews I read of this book didn’t tell much about it is because you just can’t without giving away the fun of the surprises that Bennett has in store around every corner. Just when you think you know what’s going on, you are reminded that you really have no idea what is going on. The story weaves mystery and oddball characters with atmosphere in a manner that is reminiscent of Twin Peaks, and the underlying secrets that Mona uncovers are something different altogether. Bennett can go from a feeling of almost normality to one of eerie darkness in a flash. Some characters are just too dark and weird to even comprehend. For example:

“There is a man standing in the exact center of the garage. He is very tall, and he stands motionless with his arms stiff at his sides. He wears a filthy blue canvas suit, streaked with mud in a thousand places, and sewn onto the surface of this suit are dozens and dozens of tiny wooden rabbit heads, all with huge staring eyes and long, tapered ears. On his face he wears a wooden helmet – or perhaps it is a tribal mask – whose crude, chiseled features suggest the blank, terrified face of a rabbit, complete with curving, badly carved ears. Where its eyes should be are two long rectangular holes. Somewhere behind these, presumably, are the eyes of the mask’s wearer, yet only darkness can be seen.”

Why rabbit heads, Bennett? (I kept thinking of Anya on Buffy who was scared of rabbits.) The answer is actually in there for the reader, and I appreciated that Bennett didn’t spoon-feed it to us, but rather let us puzzle it out on our own. This book is a smart and interesting synthesis of a variety of genres, and it was a fun read. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out some more of Bennett’s work!

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