California Literary Review

American Atlas by Dan Gerber

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April 10th, 2007 at 8:36 am

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American Atlas
by Dan Gerber
Michigan State University Press, 204 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Dated But Interesting

“I feel I should say something,” I said, half laughing, “but I don’t know what it is.”

“I know,” she said.

Those are the last two sentences of Dan Gerber’s novel American Atlas. Now any writer that has me wander and at times wade through 204 pages of sometimes horribly self-indulgent prose to reach this conclusion is asking a lot and at the time Gerber wrote this, 1972, he was not nearly the accomplished writer he is today. The book was re-released by Michigan State University Press. I’d not read it and was curious to see what the author of the splendid A Voice From The River had to say in this one.

I cheated and glanced at the ending and came up with a no-star rating right off the bat. For a publisher and/or a writer to expect the reading public to pay $19.95 for a book that admits that it has nothing to say takes guts. To make readers wait until the last sentences to discover this, if they haven’t already, seems preposterous.

American Atlas is something of a road book with the protagonist a rich guy around thirty who stands to inherit the family business that makes lots of money selling frozen pies. The novel is truly autobiographical as Gerber is of the Gerber Baby Food clan. Incidents include a car crash during a race that is a clear reflection of the author t-boning a wall going 150 mph at Riverside long ago. Autobiographical isn’t bad. Every novel has some of this to some extent.

Still a book about nothing is unsettling. Sounds like a lame TV show premise.

In a blurb on the back cover Thomas McGuane says “What American Atlas does is dramatize the potential for comedy and non-specific despair that is inherent in the process of inheritance and family business. Page by page, Gerber’s sensibility – trained on poetry – reveals surprising lyricism. His comedy rests to a great extent in a field biologist’s accuracy of observation. His topic is one Nabokov suspected was the most bracing of all: vulgarity.”

Well, McGuane knows a bit about inheritance having walked into a buck or two in his life, but to refer to American Atlas as comedy is a bit of a stretch. I laughed a few times and my sense of humor may be a touch tired but it certainly isn’t moribund. Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark or Lolita is comedy. And even suggesting that this book has any relation to anything Nabokovian strikes me as friendship-style nepotism.

And this book isn’t vulgar. There are some sex scenes, drinking, scenes, drug scenes, and unpleasant scenes. Sounds like life to me and the trip hasn’t become so bad as to be labeled vulgar, yet.

So how did I reach a point where I was able to give American Atlas three stars?

First, much like the movie Easy Rider, though not in this classic’s league, the novel offers some wonderful glimpses into the sappy, drug-addled naiveté of the late sixties-early seventies – pot parties with wine chasers, random sex or a preoccupation with such, posturing poets, a complete lack of respect or consideration for anything but one’s own desires carefully concealed beneath a cloying wrap of poor-me self examination.

And way back then Gerber displayed flashes of the talent that made A Voice From The River such a hammering hard, truthful work. If all of American Atlas were even close to the following scene played out near the end of a dinner party at an Arizona poet’s desert home, the book would be outrageous.

“The dog had crawled to Tom’s porch and was resting its head and one paw on the bottom step. It was breathing heavily, and blood glistened on its fur. Blood ran from its mouth and the howl came from deep within its body. I ran into the light and held the pistol at arm’s length. I sighted on the dog’s brain and fired. I was momentarily amazed at my shot. The bullet divided the skull with an almost lapidary accuracy. A small split in the center. The dog heaved once deeply, rolled onto its back, and was still. One forepaw waved mechanically, but I knew he was dead. It wasn’t like a death on television or in the movies, bang and he falls still and dead. The dog had suffered, and it didn’t understand. It felt the pain of the bullets and crawled to its master for help, and its master turned his head away and fired one blind shot after another.”

A wonderful way to write the obituary for the Lala peace generation and all of its hapless trappings.

Gerber is a poet, novelist and essayist whose books include Grass Fires, New and Selected Poems and Snow on the Backs of Animals. His poems and stories have appeared in The Nation, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated and The Georgia Review.

As he writes now and has for well over a decade, Gerber is one of the best. As he wrote way back when he wasn’t as the following may suggest:

“May I help you?” the girl said.

“What?” I said, realizing for the first time that I was standing full in the open door of the van and probably blocking her only source of reading light.

“Do you like Kahlil Gibran?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I think he’s the rancid creation of sex-crazed teeny-boppers looking for instant mysticism, but I love you. Please. I could listen to you read the telephone book.”

“Oh,” she shrieked, “we can’t escape the Philistines even here.” The door slammed shut, almost taking my nose with it. Why couldn’t I be civil?”

Then again, when I look at this once more, the passage strikes me as pretty damn funny. I guess I’m a bit ambivalent here, so what the hell, three stars.

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