Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
17 December 2008
Brian Francis Slattery’s fiction debut, Spaceman Blues: A Love Story (2007), was a novel about the last days before Earth is overcome by an alien attack. His second novel, Liberation, is not a direct sequel to Spaceman Blues, but it does seem to follow from it. Liberation takes place several years after a different kind of apocalyptic event—the economic collapse of the United States—whose effects are no less devastating than the rain of fire and destruction which closes Spaceman Blues's action. Where Spaceman Blues tempered its downbeat ending by charting the rise of a folk hero to embody the spirit of human endurance and resistance, Liberation concentrates on the travails of an entire superhero team, the Slick Six.
The Slick Six are Marco, Zeke, Johanna, Dayneesha, Hideo, and Carolyn. Before the collapse, they were criminals, and preternaturally skilled at their line of work, but they ran afoul of a shady businessman known only as the Aardvark, and Marco, their muscle and a natural-born killer, was sent to prison. Six years later, Marco has escaped and returned to an America he barely recognizes. The government is gone, replaced by self-governing city-states and remote agricultural towns. The Aardvark has become the emperor of what would be called a criminal organization if the word "criminal" still had any meaning, and from his stronghold in New York he oversees the operation of thousands of slave camps, where the desperate and wretched, having been enslaved or sold themselves to avoid starvation, are worked to death. The Slick Six are dispersed, imprisoned, or enslaved, but Marco laboriously tracks them down, gathers them together, and puts before them a plan for their most audacious heist yet: to steal back a country.
The publicity material for Liberation quite understandably makes much of the prescience and topicality of its premise, but in doing so seems to misrepresent the novel's goals and strengths. Liberation is not, and does not, I believe, pretend to be, a speculation on how a post-economic-collapse America might look. In fact, were it not for its near-future setting (which has, anyway, been overtaken by reality), it would be a stretch to call the novel science fiction at all. Liberation isn't a novel which imagines or predicts the future. It's a novel about, and looking at, the past. This is obvious from the novel’s design, from the long-winded subtitle (Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America) to the newsprint-and-woodcut style of the front cover and illustrations. It’s obvious from its style, from the chapter summaries ("A reunion of ACQUAINTANCES; a brief HISTORY of Zeke HEZEKIAH and the AARDVARK; a jailbreak," p. 26), to the swashbuckling plot, deliberately recalling the 19th century adventure pulps that gave rise to the Western genre and many of the myths of the American pioneering spirit. And it is obvious from Liberation's emphasis on America's two original sins: the disenfranchisement and near-genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans.
The liberation in the novel's title is not of a person or people, but of the country from its past. A rewinding of that country's history, back through its darkest passages and all the way back to its birth. "This planet," Zeke muses near the end of the novel, "is just waiting for us to go; then there will be no more history, and the world can go about healing itself from the damage we've done" (p. 248). The allies and enemies the Slick Six encounter in their quest to defeat the Aardvark frequently identify with this goal of shaking off the damage caused by humanity, and specifically the American nation. The Six make a deal with the New Sioux, a band of Native Americans bent on reclaiming the land stolen from their ancestors, and the novel ends with them taking ownership of the island of Manhattan as payment for their services. More sinister is The Circus of Industrial Destruction, which descends on Midwestern towns in an orgy of blood and violence and erases them from existence, "trying to undo progress, some say, trying to make it as though we were never here" (p. 220). The resurgence of slavery is less a result of economic hardship and more an expression of this journey back into the past.
… history swung in front of Maggot Boy Johnson, lashed him to its pendulum. There were noises to port, a bell, creaking wood, murmuring voices; then a spectral ship sailed through theirs, the crew in the transparent hold throwing dice against casks of deep brown rum. It ate its own wake back to Massachusetts, sailed back along the malarial coast of the South to Barbados, where the rum turned to molasses, the molasses into sugar, the sugar into cane that men replanted with upwards strokes of machetes in hazy green fields. Some of the men were walked backwards, stripped naked, lain on dirt floors among corpses. Then all were forced to their feet. Racked by fever, covered in offal, they shuffled backward into a fat, splintery boat, lay down in tight rows among flies; then all was dark, dark and screaming until the doors opened again, and they were on Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar, looking out of a stone doorway to the greasy slave ship tilting on the ravenous water, and beyond, the ocean burning blue under a bleaching sky, with no land in sight. (pp. 13-14)
(It is interesting to note that the history Liberation winds backwards seems to begin at the end of the 19th century. The turbulent 20th century and America's prominent role in it for both good and evil are hardly ever mentioned in the novel—perhaps because American actions and history during that century are not as easily summed up as slavery and the disenfranchisement of Native Americans, or perhaps because to wind back American history during the 20th century would be to wind back a substantial portion of world history as well. Still, it was during the 20th century that America became a, or perhaps the, world power, and it seems almost dishonest for a novel which tries to imagine the country's salvation to ignore such a substantial portion of its legacy.)
What follows in the wake of this unmaking is the fragmentation of America into smaller, more comprehensible entities. The free city of Asheville, North Carolina, where Johanna is mayor and to which escaped slaves flee. The dry ruins of Las Vegas, which every few weeks erupt in an exuberant, week-long party that draws crowds of thousands. Agricultural collectives in Kansas whose inhabitants are slowly learning to do without computers, movies, cars, tractors. The streets of Los Angeles, abandoned by the affluent who fled stories of violent, brutal mobs, which have been taken over and transformed by the city's underclass.
The electricity's off and the water is bad. They cradle papayas and mangoes in their hands, apologize before hacking them to pieces. But their seven-year-old children can't even remember riding in cars, and the parents look at the dusty station wagon rusting in the driveway and understand that they don't miss any of it: spending hours in a hardened mass of cars on the freeway, pouring concrete for foundation on barren hillsides, driving down bolts and rebar; the linen suits, the calendar, the night shifts at diners and laundromats, the stench of soap under crackling neon. They can't recall what it was all for. A collective idyll has spread under the helicopters. Los Angeles has become their secret paradise, the dead power lines their jungle vines, the bulbs of streetlights their budding flowers. (p. 147)
Liberation is, in other words, a sentimental novel, one that harks back to a simplicity that probably never existed and could almost certainly never be achieved. In Slattery's hands, sentimentality is a powerful tool. In both Spaceman Blues and Liberation, he is at his strongest when describing communities as living, breathing, benevolent organisms, whose members have a strong commitment to one another and to the entity they form. Sentimentality is not, however, a tool suited to political discussions. Slattery's America is a fantastic one, a fable, as much a wish-fulfillment fantasy as a cautionary tale. One can argue with the novel's contention that it is both possible and desirable to roll back history and start afresh, but that argument would be purely philosophical. In the real world, the past is immutable, the consequences of our and our ancestors' actions inescapable. Liberation seems to want very little to do with that reality, which is why it isn't, in any meaningful way, a political novel. Even the slavery which is the dark heart of the novel is more the performance of slavery, in its canonical, 19th century format—slave auctions, newspaper ads announcing the sale or escape of slaves, plantations—than a true examination of the peculiar institution's depravity, or an attempt to capture the form of present-day slavery.
But the same fable-like tone that undercuts Liberation as a political novel bolsters it as a story of high adventure and unrequited love. So do its compelling adventure narrative, which unfolds like a fireside yarn and carries the reader helplessly along; the communities Slattery creates out of whole cloth; the larger than life menaces that threaten them; and, most of all, the benevolence and affection with which Slattery draws his characters and the relationships between them. As the Slick Six make their way across America's smoldering remains, we become aware of the circumstances that brought them together and tore them apart: how Marco was recruited to take the Six's operation to the next level, how he terrified them with his casual brutality even as he fell in love with the family they offered him, how he sacrificed himself when the Aardvark threatened to imprison them all, and how that sacrifice became necessary because one of the others betrayed him. There is nothing political about Marco's quest to reunite the Six and free America. He wants his family back just as it was before his imprisonment, and he wants to prove to Johanna that he is worthy of her love. The other members of the Six, meanwhile, have to decide whether they are willing to return to the people they were, or whether they'd prefer to leave the past behind them. Much like Spaceman Blues, Liberation is a love story, or in fact several, very few of them happy.
And then, of course, there's the language. As I hope the quotes above demonstrate, Slattery's prose is halfway to poetry, and Liberation is not so much a novel as a performance. As the sentences flow into one another, as the narrative transitions seamlessly from one point of view or plotline to the next, one can almost hear the novel being read out loud, or imagine it being performed—by a reader in front of an audience, or a storyteller beside a fire. Slattery's commitment to a voice that is distinctive nearly to the point of being musical (yet at the same time entirely lacking in self-consciousness) is rare both in and out of genre—off the top of my head, only Michael Chabon occurs as an example of a writer who might match it.
Liberation's pleasures, then, are much the same as the ones afforded by Spaceman Blues. It is an adventure, a love story, and an epic poem. For people like myself, who found Spaceman Blues a delight, this is more than enough reason to pick the novel up (though those who found Spaceman Blues mannered and twee might wish to give Liberation a wide berth), but there isn’t anything more or new in this book. Whether or not the publicity material which tries to spin Liberation as a timely political commentary reflects the author's intentions, the fact remains that it is too simple and fable-like to achieve much as such a work. At most it is a lament for, and a reminder of, the people whose suffering and death made America possible, and a fantasy that imagines their posthumous salvation. As political statements go, however, this is rather poor fare. Intentionally or not, Liberation finds Slattery marching in place. That's a very good place, and there's certainly a niche in our literary landscape for authors of lyrical, exuberant, warm-hearted, quirky adventures, but whatever the next step is in Slattery's development as a writer, Liberation is not it.