book Going Native

reviewed by James Brundage

Published in Issue No. 22 ~ March, 1999

There is a trend in modern writing that has begun to grow on me. Increasingly, the authors of works are willing to put themselves on the line, to state their opinions and to enter realms that would have been taboo even a half century ago. Some of them use this privilege to scream their point, like Robert Coover in Gerald’s Party, whose malicious work begins “None of us noticed the body at first….” Some of them say it quietly, in a whisper, like Michael Ondaatje with The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), making the death of the most famous outlaw poetic. Then there’s the third group of people, ones who have something so blaring to say that it deafens your ears but remains indelibly printed upon your brain. Stephen Wright is one such writer, and Going Native (1994) is one such book.

From the inside flap on, Going Native is interesting and out-of-control, as shown in the following passage:

“So this dream car of ours,” asked the hitcher, “the museum know you got it?”
“69 Ford Galaxie,” boasted the driver, “Sign and symbol of our confused and wild youth.”
“What’d you do, steal it?”
The driver, who was chewing on one of his nails, hesitated to inspect the damage. “Well, as a matter of fact, yeah.”

This complex novel, roughly three hundred pages in length, follows the travels of Wylie Jones. Jones has the current cliché American Dream: a wife, two kids, nice house, nice job, nice car. Nonetheless, after witnessing the aftermath of a 7-11 murder, he decides to hit the road. As with all things in the novel, his reasons are ambiguous. He’s hitting the road and heading for California, taking his sweet time getting there but heading steadily for it. In each place he goes, he finds himself trapped in a different reality, each one less pleasant than the last, until he finds himself, in an Eastern way, having gone full circle.

And yet the story is told not from the Jones’ perspective, but instead from the perspective of a series of characters whose lives intersect his. The first chapter is told by his wife, the next by the crack dealer he steals the 69 Galaxie from, the third by a serial-killer hitchhiker, and the fourth by a motel manager who wants nothing more in life than to write blockbusters. The fifth chapter follows an out-of-control, porn-star party; the sixth a Las Vegas lesbian couple; and the seventh the journey of man and wife B-movie stars to Indonesia in an attempt to cleanse their souls. Finally, this narrative collage ends centered on a man trapped in his Los Angeles life.

Each chapter reads more like a long short story than an episode of a novel, and that forms the weakest and most inaccessible aspect of the novel: if you’re not careful, you may end up putting down a wonderful book because you think it’s disjointed. But when you reach the end, the puzzle is solved; the main character is revealed and shown for what he really is.

We don’t see this from his eyes until the end. We watch it from the eyes of the people around him, each of them searching for themselves inside of their lives. They all try to live their dreams, lead happy lives: ironically, the very thing that Wylie had to start with.

The book has more irony laced in it than an analysis of an acid trip, which, like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1979), is exactly what it feels like. (The comparison between Wright and Pynchon is appropriate: this guy is in Pynchon’s league.) Despite a tendency to write like a series of short stories, Stephen Wright has tales to tell and says them with loud, evocative prose that wards off boredom with a branding iron and makes you want to read more.

Going Native possesses both the crude, offensive, and blaring nature to hold the interest of a Stephen King fan as well as sufficient ironic wit, intelligence, and bizarre brilliance to keep those of us who finished Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) interested. Stephen Wright is in the vanguard of young postmodernists, and, if you can find it, Going Native is a book to add to your collection.