Novels are rarely about the things reviewers say they’re about. If a writer’s done a good-enough job on his novel, he’s created such a vivid impression of life that we’re compelled to search for a higher meaning in it, just as we relentlessly pick over life in our endless search for meaning. I’m going to seek to entertain you by comparing George Williams’ Degenerate to John Ford’s The Searchers.
Degenerate is the story of a quest that takes the narrator, Chris, west across America, from his home in the beautiful and historic city of Savannah and his beloved “bright green South,” where his great grandfather had been rector of the Pass Christian Episcopalian church, through the tawdry casino country around Biloxi, the bayous and oil drilling territory of southern Louisiana, with its “feel and smell of atomized oil in the air,” into the sandstone and red rock expanses of the desert Southwest and all the way to the Pacific, where the target of his journey dwells.
At the beginning of the novel we learn that Chris’s 18-year-old daughter has been murdered two years earlier in California after attending a party at The Mansion—the home of Mr. El Dorado, a character who is clearly based on Hugh Hefner. Chris and his wife, unable to cope with their grief, have since divorced. Chris has also been asked to take a leave of absence from his job as an aeronautical engineer, and through the entire trip he is plagued with thoughts of hurricanes, nightmares about being trapped in wind tunnels where the windspeed is increasing exponentially, and visions of taking flight in his car off the edge of a cliff.
Before leaving on his trip, Chris has burned down his house, using his photo albums as kindling. He’s so loosely tethered to the Earth at this point, and his rage is so great, it’s doubtful that the center can hold. Along his route he picks up Julia, a young Czech woman escaping a lover/pimp who made her a prostitute and porno star, and JC, a young, beautiful and bipolar Texan who scribbles madly in her journal at all hours and leaps out of the jump seat of an airplane without warning, to parachute to the ground.
The novel is a view of America through the eyes of the depressed, displaced and disappointed. At the start of his journey, Chris looks for his great grandfather’s home on the Gulf of Mexico, only to remember that it was swept into the ocean by the 1969 hurricane that just about washed Biloxi from the face of the Earth. The trio travels old sections of Route 66, punctuated with abandoned gas stations, the site of the original McDonald’s, sandstone and red rock formations, and derelict motels, including The Wigwam, with units shaped like Tee Pees and cameras mounted behind mirrors over the beds. The Satan-tattooed manager stares at Julia and asks her where he’s seen her before.
Set in 1999, the narrator’s thoughts are also repeatedly interrupted with worries about Y2k. The entire world seems in danger of flying apart, and Williams is at his best in depicting the state of mind and setting that I’ve described above. One of the methods he uses is a kind of stream-of-consciousness cataloging of the passing scene through the windows of the car. This passage is from very early in the novel, at the start of Chris’s trip, as he gets further from Savannah:
Spanish Fort. Confederate Battlefield.
Before the tunnel I passed a white F-150 with a silver truck bed tool box, Seminole plates, with a customized JUGG on the tailgate.
Keep Mobile Funky
A maintenance truck with a huge hydraulic arm leaned over the side of the Bay Bridge.
Battleship Park. USS Alabama. Rhodes Quail Farm, Heart of Dixie.
Out of the tunnel, Water St. Texas. Virginia.
Grand Casino billboards. Bright shiny happy young couple. Because Real Life is Boring.
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Alligator Farm. Art Garfunkel. Grand Casino Biloxi. The Turtles, Gary Puckett, Debbie Reynolds, Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Pascagoula River. Gautier, Vancleave.
Sand Hill Crane Wildlife Refuge.
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Mississippi Vietnam Memorial Highway. Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Beauvoir, The Jefferson Davis Home. In Georgia he was caught escaping the Fourth Michigan Cavalry wearing women’s clothes. A myth. He was wearing his wife’s ragland, spurs on his boots. He carried a gun, not a knife. God’s will be done, he said.
Note the repeated tearing of the fabric of nature, and the nobility of the past, by the garish and ugly present, all leading to the climactic moment of identification with Jefferson Davis at the end of his personal fight with the United States.
What makes Degenerate a kind of new take on a Western like The Searchers, rather than a revenge story or road novel, is its overall storyline, its theme, and the psychological make-up of the hero.
In both The Searchers and Degenerate, the story begins with a man who has lost a woman and his home. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), in The Searchers, set in 1868, has lost the woman he loves (Martha) to his brother and lost his country to Abraham Lincoln. (Some critics believe Ethan has also lost his daughter—that he may be the real father of Debbie. I’ve always liked that interpretation.)
Chris, in addition to his wife and daughter, has lost a society where Bach is played and people are decent and polite. Over and over in the novel, in every casual encounter, he meets violence in response to misunderstandings and rudeness where courtesy would have cost nothing. With few exceptions, the people who aren’t being rude or violent are hopelessly narcissistic or just disgusting. A waitress says “That’s totally lame” after he tells her she looks like his daughter. In New Orleans: “I checked into a hotel near the Garden District and walked. Off Bourbon Street an unshaven businessman in a slept-in suit weaved past me, crying for his Mommy. Video poker turned misers into gaming addicts overnight.” And when Chris finally reaches the Pacific, he finds “a political activist named Buffalo” who’s handing out a flyer titled “My Declaration of Self Esteem,” an award-winning poet (“Richard Dewsh”) doing a reading from his book I Floated Lonely as a Turd, and of course Hef, who is portrayed as a priapic hobgoblin with a boner that’s lasted 40 days and 40 nights and made him blind.
In response to their enormous losses, both Ethan and Chris undertake a quest. In both cases, the quest appears at first glance to be about restoring order—in Ethan’s case, restoring the kidnapped Debbie to her home, in Chris’s case, confronting a man he holds morally responsible for his daughter’s death.
But achieving the goal of the quest brings neither man any peace. In both, they return a lost girl to her home, but they can’t be reunited with the woman they’re really searching for, and thus can’t return home themselves. In The Searchers, there’s the famous shot of Ethan through the doorframe of the homestead, forgotten as the people of the house tend to their returned Debbie. Then he turns and heads back into the wilderness in the closing shot to a haunting verse of The Searchers’ theme song:
A man will search his heart and soul
Go searching way out there
His peace o’ mind, he knows he’ll find
But where Oh Lord, Lord where.
(Chorus) Ride away__Ride away__Ride away
In Degenerate, Chris, after freeing Julia from her pimp and giving her a start in a new life, is abandoned by JC, with whom he had fallen in love, and heads off to Juarez.
Both Ethan and Chris are doomed to roam. Neither quest can ever truly be ended. That’s because, in both cases, as pointed out by Kathryn Katalin in her insightful essay “Typically American: Music for The Searchers,” the real quest is “a metaphysical search for what can never be found.”
There are more similarities between this film and this novel than I can address in a short essay, but I have to mention that both are also similar in their inspiration. A biography of Alan Le May, author of the novel upon which The Searchers was based, documents that the writer was inspired in large part by the 1836 abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker by the Comanche. Williams has said in an interview with Brian Carr (in Dark Sky Magazine)
In the nineties in Houston it seemed there was an epidemic of the murder of young women. Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena’s made international news. In 1997, Sarah Cleary and Misty Morgan’s remains were found in Misty Morgan’s burned Mercury in the woods beside railroad tracks in Montgomery County … There were many others. And disappearances. And this was nothing compared to what was happening in Juarez when I moved to El Paso for a year in 1998. I understand it’s even worse now … I researched the Ertman and Pena case, but I could never write about it in a direct way. Write, in effect, a true crime novel. The story was too awful and the ending so bleak, though poignant details came out in the trials. For instance, when gang members dragged Ms. Ertman and Pena off the railroad tracks into the woods, Jennifer escaped, but hearing her friend’s cries, she came back to help. Poignant because she was a tough girl, poignant because her loyalty meant they would both die.
Lastly, look at how well Robert Warshow’s ideas on the Western, recorded in his definitive 1954 essay “The Westerner,” fit George Williams’ novel.
Warshow points out that possessions mean nothing to a Western hero; instead, possessions are “the proving ground on which commitment to one’s own sense of worth and identity can be tested.” (Chris burns his house as he leaves it, and burns through his life savings as well on his quest to stand up for his daughter).
Warshow says the Westerner is the “last gentleman,” and that Westerns are “the last art form in which the concept of honor retains its strength.” (Throughout Degenerate, Chris is rescuing women and taking a stand for them out of his sense of honor.)
Warshow writes that the Western hero’s strength lies in his self-control: “… he will only shoot when it is right to do so.” (In Chris’s big confrontation with Mr. El Dorado, he insists that the guns he has brought will be used only in self defense, and Mr. El Dorado does indeed survive the scene unharmed. The only real threat to El Dorado comes from Julia’s pimp, who shows up at the scene.)
Degenerate even includes Warshow’s required iconic Western pose, the right angled stance of the gunfighter. As Williams writes: “I took the gun from Julia and pointed at him. I cocked it.”
Kathryn Katalin reads The Searchers as “… recording the struggle and perhaps even the failure of community facing the overwhelming odds of hostile Indians and inhospitable terrain … It is the vulnerability of the American nation on the edge of the western frontier that is chronicled in The Searchers.”
I read Degenerate as recording the struggle and failure of community facing the overwhelming odds of predatory capitalism and declining resources. It’s about holding it together during precarious times.
I have to warn readers that Williams deliberately omits a lot of standard punctuation in his fiction, like quotation marks around dialogue. Don’t let that keep you from reading him. Williams is an artist, but you don’t have to fear he will leave you bored or confused. He writes strong stories, with strong characters and a lot of edgy humor.
One thing I have noticed about my own reaction to works of fiction that lack quotation marks around dialogue is that the missing punctuation makes the voices of the characters sound faint in my head—I can literally only barely hear them. While I was reading Degenerate, I had a constant longing to turn the volume up.
The effect is to make the characters ghostlike.
Here’s a guy who added standard punctuation to the first chapter of Ulysses: What Would Ulysses Look Like With Conventional Punctuation?
Now is that so terrible, George?