Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery

There are a lot of good things I'd like to say about Brian Francis Slattery's debut novel, Spaceman Blues, a lot of ways in which it is a successful and remarkable novel. But the one that stands out most prominently and impressively is the fact that this novel manages to do so much with so little. I've spoken about my admiration for short novels before, and specifically for the ones whose authors posses the ability to write essentially, to establish a sense of place with a page, a character or community with a paragraph, and a relationship with a sentence. Spaceman Blues, at a mere 219 pages, is one of those novels, with a breadth of scope and imagination that puts me in mind of the early novels of John Crowley (most especially The Deep). Like Crowley, Slattery knows how to colonize and infest his readers' minds, so that characters brought to life by a single sentence live, love, and grow old in our imagination. When a police detective is needled by his partner for maybe having a crush on a medical examiner named Gore, he evenly responds that "She is clever and bears her unfortunate moniker with grace." How can we help but imagine their tender love story, even if the two characters never meet again?

But before I get too carried away with telling you that Spaceman Blues is a fantastic novel because it's so short, how about describing some of the things that do happen in the novel? It begins with the disappearance of Manuel Rodrigo de Guzmán González, a well-connected party maven and shady operator in a New York that is only a shade more fantastic than the real thing. Manuel spends his last day in the city bouncing from party to party and imbibing heroic amounts of alcohol and drugs. Then he vanishes off the face of the earth. His devastated lover, Wendell Apogee, determines to find him, and is aided in his quest by several of Manuel's friends, acquaintances, and enemies, and by a man named Massoud, a former Lebanese fighter pilot who has sworn off violence, but who sees in Wendell the image of his dead brother, a mobster whom Massoud abandoned to his violent death, and the opportunity to make amends for this betrayal. Spaceman Blues is subtitled A Love Song, and that it is--a narrative of Wendell's love for Manuel as well as several other love stories between secondary and tertiary characters--but it is also a fantasy, a quest (complete with a descent into the underworld), a superhero origin story, and a story about an alien invasion and possibly the end of the world.

The most heartfelt love song in the novel, however, is to New York itself--perhaps because on top of being an ode to the city, Spaceman Blues is also an elegy to it. Slattery's New York is an immigrant city. His story takes place in barrios and housing projects. There's a danger, when telling stories in these settings, of mythologizing and glorifying the bohemian lifestyle of their indigent protagonists, half of whom, in Spaceman Blues, are refugees or illegal immigrants working dangerous, dead-end jobs, and of portraying their rootless and sometimes extra-legal existence as hip and carefree--the Rent fallacy, in other words. At the other end of the scale are depictions of poverty in which happiness and fulfillment are unattainable pipe dreams. Spaceman Blues doesn't glorify poverty, but neither does it indulge in bleak realism--without ignoring the difficulties of being poor, non-white, and an immigrant in New York, it portrays a viable, vibrant community, through which the city is nourished and replenished.
It is cooler today; life grows in the neighborhood. The old Dominicans, the ones who were middle-aged before the crack wars, sit in plastic lawn chairs on the sidewalk. They drink beers from a stained Playmate cooler and argue about politics from Santo Domingo from forty years ago. The young ones stand near the walls of the parks, smile and call each other motherfucker, their arms around each other's shoulders. Cars pass with windows open, shaking merengue, and they whistle to the people in the apartments. For the first time in weeks, nobody is sweating through his clothes, nobody mops his brow. It is a good day, the best day of the year, people will say. Tomorrow we'll be sweating like you mother in heat.
In fact, therein lies Spaceman Blues's greatest strength--it is a remarkably good-hearted novel. I can't remember the last time I read a story this benevolent towards all its characters. Manuel turns out to have been involved in human trafficking, and Wendell encounters several of his former associates and rivals. Without ignoring the dangers, physical and spiritual, of this kind of life, Slattery portrays these characters as people in search of--and, more importantly, who are deserving of--the same kind of happiness we all want. Manuel's enemy El Flaco is pining after his estranged wife. As small-time Eastern European crook, elevated and made wealthy by Manuel, uses that wealth to "[buy] a house in Slovenia overlooking the Danube for his new bride, a seamstress and soccer player. He and his wife fixed up his car, considered buying a boat to moor along the valley when they were in need of romance." It's hard not to be won over by these relatively modest dreams, and by the genuine emotion driving them.

On the other hand, white, wealthy and law-abiding characters are also portrayed positively in the novel. Wendell's friend Robert Lord Townsend Jr., heir to a textile and real estate fortune, is a thoughtful, kind man who dreams of getting his company's board members drunk and showing them a good time. The humorously named detectives Salmon and Trout, assigned to investigate Manuel's disappearance, are conscientious and caring. Their relationship has been under strain for several years, since Salmon's belief in his ability to attach a narrative to a crime scene was shattered by the murder of a woman they were protecting. Since then, he and Trout have been at odds, their differing worldviews--Salmon believes in hewing slavishly to the evidence, accepting the simplest possible solution to any puzzle, whereas Trout still believes in mystery--causing tension between them, and their reconciliation is one of the novel's most important plotlines. Even the alien invaders benefit from the author's sympathy:
Nine years. Nine years the creature spent pulling through inky space to reach this place. It saw suns fall together, merge and explode in the brilliance of dying nebulae beyond; saw planets wheel out of orbit and freeze to death, or draw spirals of fire in their descent toward their mother star. It saw three ships fail, disintegrate in flight, thousands of its brethren tossed unprotected into vacuum; was almost lost twice itself to the work of stray debris, meteorites. It lay awake for days at a time, petrified of instant death, watched the same fear drive friends to murder and suicide, and at last overcame it, became something stronger. But now it lies scattered on a scrap-strewn pavement, calling in vain to arms and legs that are distant from it, a torso that cannot reply, for the organs are confused. They lie, nerve endings screaming and wriggling on the hard ground, searching blind for pieces that are gone far away.
An obvious danger with this kind of approach is that it can drain a story of tension. If everyone is a good guy who just wants to hug their loved ones and carve out their own slice of happiness, doesn't the novel devolve into a rose-tinted, fangless fairy tale? The answer is in the story's breadth. Slattery's New York grows fractally. Every character we meet has a backstory, a family history, secret hopes and ambitions, and we are made aware of all of them. In his search for Manuel, Wendell travels to Darktown--a secret underground city, suspended by steel cables from New York's underside, where lost things and people go (a sort of cross between Gaiman's London Below and VanderMeer's Veniss Underground), with its own permanent fixtures, neighborhoods, and sub-groups. The mythology and genesis of this city and its subdivisions are also expanded upon, as well as, once again, the hopes and dreams of its individual inhabitants. Spaceman Blues is, in other words, a novel that never stops inventing and showing us new things, and Slattery's gift is the ability to make us care about all the people Wendell meets.

The tradeoff for this breadth is a lack of depth. It's probably a good thing that Slattery moves so quickly from one character to another and from one setting to the next, as very few of them have the psychological complexity to withstand intense scrutiny. If we spent too much time with any of Wendell's acquaintances, we'd probably find them simple rather than charming. By the same token, the novel's plot doesn't stand up to much examination, and the weakest chapters are the ones in which Wendell learns what happened to Manuel and who the people pursuing him are. Unlike other short novels, which intensely examine a single character, setting, emotional tone or dilemma, Spaceman Blues touches on a myriad subjects, in each case very lightly.

Which is not to say that it is a shallow novel. In fact, what's most notable about Spaceman Blues is its intensity of feeling--of the characters towards one another, of the characters towards their city, and of the author towards both. Spaceman Blues is indeed a love song--an exuberant, exhilarating, captivating one, and one that as many people as possible should read and enjoy.


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