Imagine stumbling upon this strange, picaresque novel sometime in the immediate future. Absent of context and unaware of the author’s past work, the open-minded reader might be repelled by Rudolph Wurlitzer’s The Drop Edge of Yonder. First published in 2008 by the Independent press Two Dollar Radio, this dreamy and difficult incantation of a Western novel drifted through the atmosphere at the time and quickly faded away. Named 2008’s #1 Book of the Year by Time Out New York, Wurlitzer’s first novel in 24 years re-announced a stubborn outsider mired in the hallmarks of Western Fiction: flat and endless landscapes, journeys into darkness, and the difficult terrain between life and death.
Nine years after its original release, Two Dollar Radio has again brought forth the journey of Zebulon Shook, a violent lunatic mountain man either unaware of his limbo status, or simply unwilling to go gently into that sometimes dirty dark night. It’s mid-19th century America, a time when anything seems possible so long as you retain the impulse to move forward. Be repelled by this lunatic if you must, but do so at your own risk.
Zebulon seems to have been killed when we first meet him. Near the end of the second brief chapter (the novel is separated in such a way where the thin chapter slices are like whispers or different angles on the same scene), we receive the premise at the same time as Zebulon. He’s killed the only love of a dying woman, and before she slips away she is determined to cast him into a darkness from which he’ll never return:
“From now on, you will drift like a blind man between the worlds, not knowing if you’re dead or alive, or if the unseen world exists, or if you’re dreaming…”
In keeping with such a definitive curse, Zebulon never knows who he is or where he is going. Is he 35? Is he 40? A dark shadow is looming over him, as it always seems to have been, but the reader may never be aware if that’s a mandate of the genre (psychedelic Western) or simply a leaden plot device. Regardless, we stay with it as Zebulon comes upon Hatchet Jack, who proves to be neither friend nor foe but something equally ambiguous as our hero.
For Wurlitzer, stars are always shooting across the sky “Like silver bursts of rifle fire”, and as Zebulon wanders from Colorado, to parts of the remote Northwest, the Gulf of Mexico, Panama and (as he has to put it) “Californy”, the scenery is always enveloped by the gloom of this cloud. Wurlitzer’s success working within this gloom depends entirely on the reader’s willingness to indulge in the benchmarks of the genre. Consider elements of Thomas Pynchon, early Thomas McGuane, the traveling doom comedy of Joseph Heller, and the visceral sensuality of Sam Shepherd. The style of this narrative could also have made a safe home within the characters of Bob Dylan’s classic 1976 album Desire, (particularly the songs co-written with playwright Jacques Levy), where everybody was always set out for the next adventure down South, mourning lost love, and looking for trouble in the Cantina around the corner.
Delilah, the other major character who stays with Zebulon from the beginning to his unclear end, is another staple of the genre. She’s a consort of Count Baronofsky’s, one of the high-rolling adventurers necessary to keep a story like this going. She’s described as “…part French… Abyssinian… Babylonian and Egyptian and god knows what else…” She’s a commodity to be bought, sold, and bargained, but she’s also her own person and it seems she also shares Zebulon’s fate. She drifts in and out of the narrative as Zebulon proceeds with his journey. Whenever we hear her singing “Amazing Grace” or “Hard Times” or other staples of the era, we know she’s both a sign of comfort and an omen of doom from which there’s no escape.
The strongest theme in this novel is impermanence and the hazy comfort of the in-between world. As the Count tells Zebulon: “…Everything, including nature, is impermanent, and you and I and everyone else are not what we appear to be.” Zebulon sinks, floats, sees visions, understands his status, and the reader is left with few alternatives but to stay on the ride until the end. Wurlitzer plays with the psychedelic elements of the genre while also dipping into the comfort of earthly delights so prevalent in stories of Western conquerors:
“Zebulon embraced it all: the smells and decay and violence, all the noisy chaos that marked a new frontier.”
Roughly halfway through the novel, Delilah tells Zebulon what’s happened in her life and what’s driving her to remain wandering in a limbo similar to our hero:
“Because I have mixed blood from many different races, she [her grandmother] told me not to become trapped between worlds… I never listened… and now it is my fate… to learn how to die, over and over… She told me to leave everything that I was attached to…”
Delilah and Zebulon seem to be constantly wondering if they are dreaming each other, and this proves to be both a blessing and a curse for The Drop Edge of Yonder. Wurlitzer’s pedigree as a cult-favorite screenwriter (Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973, Walker, 1987, among others), and as a stubborn off-beat brilliant cult novelist, is unassailable. If Zebulon Shook has a problem because he cannot pick a side between life and death, then The Drop Edge of Yonder, shares a similar problem. It apparently began life as a screenplay treatment and went through the hands of like-minded visionaries Sam Peckinpah, Hal Ashby, Jim Jarmusch, and Richard Gere. As a film, safely guided to life by a sympathetic auteur (and not many in the above list are still above ground), this story could have an amazing impact on the world.
As a novel, though, perhaps it’s fitting that the final effect of The Drop Edge of Yonder is similar to the indifference of an eternity in limbo. Is it alive purely on the page, or would it die without our mind racing to cast the leading characters, hire a sympathetic director, and bankroll the enterprise with unlimited funds? Before Zebulon drifts away in the final pages, never having conclusively identified himself as alive or dead, he offers commentary on the problem of imprisoning such a story within the limited range of words on a page:
“Dreaming was easy, he thought. Being dreamed was the problem.”