Junk male

The sum of Scott Bradfield’s fragmented tales of American life is bigger than its parts. Catherine Fellows tries to piece the story together.

When Emma O‘Hallahan. the 69-year-old heroine of Scott Bradfield‘s new novel. announces on the first page of herjournal that she has shot her cantankerous husband and buried him in the garden. it should come as no surprise. Phillip. the narrator of The History of Luminous Motion, Bradfield‘s much-praised first novel. managed to murder his rnother‘s lover. master most of the world‘s philosophies. rob hundreds of houses and dabble with the stock exchange and he was a kid ofeight-ycars-old.

Like The History of Luminous Motion. Emma‘s story, Whats Wrong With America. uses the device of the unreliable first person narrator to lead its readers into a blackly funny voyage around a mind insulated from reality byjunk culture. With Phillip it is a matter of fixing endless Poptart breakfasts. and mulling over the totality of conventional wisdom and folly. from Plato to L. Ron Hubbard. ‘l have given him the language that most kids don‘t have, so he can express the far out ideas and feelings that most kids do have.‘ says Bradfield. But spoken by a child. even the saner bits of Californian psycho-babble sound grotesque. just incessant verbalising that fails to offer anything to address Phillip's real problem. which is a rootless existence and a couple of selfish. screwed-up parents.

Scott Bradiield reappraises the American dream

Emma ()‘Hallahan. settling down in front of another episode of Loving to Share. with another double brandy and a handful of frozen Kit—Kat bars. uses a more homely set of stories to explain her life. As she staves off the spectre of 45 years spent stuffing her acquaintances full of sandwiches they didn‘t want. and weakly appcasing her paranoid and xenophobic husband. she constructs a fantasy world as zany. improbable and downright violent as anything Hollywood could chum out.

Bradfield. an American who spends much of his time in the UK and wrote both novels here. has an ambivalent attitude to his native country. ‘There’s this incredible contradiction in American culture which is that all thisjunk and crap you‘re living with

in your crummy little suburban house all these chocolate bars and microwave dinners and plastic plants and table lamps is. in fact, the expression of a sort of idealism.‘ he says. Basically. the US is a very spiritual place. Lots of people came here because they had all these dreams and stuff. and with all this material debris they’re actually all the time trying to build something better. They‘re really just a bunch of dreamers.‘

‘You know, you can talk about relationships till your mouth wears out, but it’s actually what you do tor each other that counts.’

The characters in What‘s Wrong With America are constantly talking in big abstract terms. criticising the country, the Universe. ‘What‘s really bugging them is how angry they are at each other. and how hurt they feel.‘ says Bradfield. ‘They just can‘t bring it down to that level and discuss specifics or even listen to one another. You know, you can talk about relationships till your mouth wears out. but it‘s

. actually what you do for each other that counts.‘

Which is where Teddy. Emma‘s grandson comes in. He takes up her pen at the end of the novel and describes how, basically. he‘s just getting on with it. taking care of her, and sorting out the mess

- spinning a good yarn for the cops. concreting over the incriminating garden . . .

But perhaps the most significant thing Teddy does is to make ‘just the teenies! stylistic emendations‘ to his grandmother‘s writings: putting even bigger question marks over what has gone before. Scott Bradfield is making sure that like his characters. his readers have a bit of trouble getting to grips with reality . . .

Whats Wrong With America is published by Picador a! £14. 99. The History of Luminous Motion is now our in paperback also Picador. and £5. 99.

Black tragedy :

Albert French is still in a state oi wide-eyed wonder about being in london to promote his iirst novel, Billy, rhapsodising delightedly about his hotel, the rooms named aiter historical iigures, the claw-iooted bathtub, even the pigeons: ‘You have the biggest pigeons here - I thought it was a chicken sitting up there on the root.’ At 49, the Pittsburgh-born iormer Marine is adjusting to being the author oi one oi the most excitedly received literary debuts oi recent years.

Written in a rich, rhythmic Airican- American vernacular, Billy tells the story oi Billy Lee Turner, a ten-year-old L

living in Banes County, Mississippi hamanious community is gonad by started on this story. It ielt sort oi silly who, in 1937, accidentally kills a g raa; or any" into "gm, opposiflonfl at ilrst, but when I got to the point iiiteen-year-old white girl in alight. a mags, "gamma; 0: ma racy that where the girl dies - I really liked her, Indicted ior first-degree murder, Billy f the iatal more was struck by a and I knew I couldn’t write about her is tried as an adult, and sent to the l panicking chm, any more, and suddenly, with that electric chair. the outcome is never in l The seed or the now was sown in sense oi death, it became real. I wrote doubt - French uses the inexorable 1985, when French, ilicking TV the book very quickly, because to all

a Albert French: ‘who am I to judge any' . movement at the wheels oi Southern

‘justice’ to illustrate how every individual in what was a relatively

; me’, French says.

A channels, caught the tail-end oi a panel discussion about children being executed including - he thought - a young boy irom Mississippi in the 30s.

Although, it turned out, there was no real-lite Billy, the tact that children

a _ had been executed throughout US

? history (the youngest this century being a 14-year-old) ‘Iingered with

_ ‘A while later,’ he continues, “my

l business iolded, and I became

extremely depressed, to the extent oi

l hardly coming out oi my apartment tor i three years. I started writing mostly to E escape, and I wrote Patches oi Fire

3 [his autobiography, now nearing tinal

l completion]. That got a lot oi

l encouraging rejection letters, and

l while it was still making the rounds, I wanted to show I could do iictlon,

a have something else to send out, and I

intents and purposes I was in Banes County, and I wanted to get my head out oi there.’

The novel’s power derives partly irom French’s pungent evocation oi the sights, sounds, smells and atmospheres oi the Patch, the black area oi town where Billy lives (and this despite his never having been to Mississippi: ‘there’s lots oi Patches,’ he says. ‘I grew up in a Patch’), partly irom his reiusal to strike a polemlcal stance, allowing all his characters iull, complex, contradictory lite and thereby widening the narrative’s tragic impact. ‘It wasn’t In my mind that I was writing about racism,’ he says. ‘My challenge was - how would a kid even begin to conceive what was happening to him, how would his mother react, knowing that her child was going to be executed because he’d killed somebody? I wasn’t judgemental - that’s how it was in Mississippi then; who am I to judge anybody? I just wrote it the way it came down. (See Wilson)

Billy ls published as a Minerva original at £5.99.

The List I l—24 February I994 83