PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

A Mother Who Eats Her Young? 'A Prayer for Travelers'

Equal parts gritty and subtly heartening, tragically jarring and emotionally resonant, Ruchika Tomar's debut A Prayer for Travelers is one of the strangest and most enjoyably wrought coming-of-age stories to appear in recent years.

A Prayer for Travelers
Ruchika Tomar

Riverhead

Jul 2019

Other


Noted 20th century author and conservationist Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, (McGraw-Hill, 1968) his autobiographical ode to that blistering landscape, writes, "The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom." But what happens when one of those life forms is violently uprooted from the only sandy soil to which she's ever desperately clung? Can she still survive when that life-sustaining light suddenly gives way to the bitter chill of an unforeseen, impenetrable darkness?

Such is the plight of Cale Lambert, the fascinatingly unmoored narrator of Ruchika Tomar's debut novel, A Prayer for Travelers: a naïve teenager thrust by disaster into a brutal world she's only read about, set adrift along the feral, forgotten backroads of a decaying American Southwest, forced to reckon with an innate need for connection and a past that's never quite what it seems. Equal parts gritty and subtly heartening, tragically jarring and emotionally resonant, it's one of the strangest and most enjoyably wrought coming-of-age stories to appear in recent years. That is to say, it's one hell of a ride.

Abandoned as an infant by an unnamed mother and raised by Lamb, her ailing, codependent grandfather, Cale knows no other life outside of Pomoc, a tiny rural hamlet "flailing helplessly toward modernization", where, fresh out of high school, she cocoons herself inside a gossamer world of books and the affections of Lamb and their two dogs, Wolf and Trixie. Later, uncharacteristically accepting a job as a waitress at the town's lone diner, she strikes up a rare friendship with a coworker, the popular, street-smart Penélope "Penny" Reyes, who introduces her to an addictively exciting – and potentially life-threatening – reality lurking just below the surface of the familiar, a secret place of pills and easy money Cale has never previously dared to tread. After a gruesome near-death experience, Penny disappears and Cale embarks on a lonely, desperate quest to find her friend, breaking the self-made chains of a life that, up until now, has only ever been governed by fear and loss.

To give too much more of the plot away would be to spoil the thrill of watching Cale's mesmerizingly disjointed road to self-discovery unfold, a feat that Tomar accomplishes with enviable ease. Jam-packed with elements of small-town tribalism, ruinous drug use, the myth of Western masculinity, fast-paced violence, casino culture, self-harm, the power of obsession, desire, and burgeoning sexuality, film noir, and even the occasional ghost story, A Prayer for Travelers miraculously manages to maintain its deep focus on its protagonist's haunted inner life and the sublime details -- the slightest touch of skin, the smallest glint of a coal-dark eye – that reveal it. Every moment is pregnant with meaning, with the potential to be both foreboding and transcendent.

Adding further to the novel's ingenuity, most of the chapters appear out of order (The book opens with Chapter 31 and Chapter 1 doesn't appear until well into the second act), a tactic that all too often runs the risk of feeling gimmicky or lazy. But in A Prayer for Travelers, this well-planned non-linearity never feels forced; rather than destroying the book's momentum, it encourages it. Even when the reader knows what's going to happen, there are enough twists, turns, and startling gut punches along the way to make the many flashbacks not only worthwhile, but necessary to fully appreciating Cale's story.

Equally impressive is the visual world that Tomar conjures, a marvelously drawn background of creosote and rabbitbrush, pinyon and desert snowberry, a living landscape as romantic as the adventure novels Cale devours, and far more sinister. A place where cougars lurk and mountain wildfires rage against the night sky, where the freeways are "black and hungry, split open like rattlesnakes drying in the sun", with enough personality to rival any of the ragged souls who populate the novel's omnipresent gas stations, seedy bars, and hotel rooms. That human tapestry is just as varied and expertly fashioned.

The men and women who populate it – a recently graduated clique whose members still cling to Mean Girls-like affectations, a psychopath snake handler, an ATV-riding lunatic straight out of Mad Max who Cale terrifyingly describes as the "sandman", bored casino employees, drowsy opioid fiends, nonchalant doctors, an overenthusiastic hostel owner – are characters who might easily be demoted to the realm of caricature. But in Tomar's deftly, intricately crafted microcosm, they are pleasantly multidimensional, imbued with the same foreboding power and mystery as the desert that birthed them.

Some of Tomar's stylistic choices leave something to be desired. A few of the chapters are solely comprised of images – a collage of esoteric symbols, a coil of rattlesnakes, a pile of tarot cards – that, while visually appealing and clearly referencing future events, seem largely unnecessary to the overall narrative. Further, it's hard to imagine even the most well-read, barely-socialized 21st century teenager frequently employing verbs like "gamboled" and "parse", and casually rolling off phrases like "the clinical approximation of concern" and "mantras of casualty", or describing diner patrons as "repellent maws masticating paste". But in the scheme of things, these are only minor interruptions to an otherwise spellbinding story, and thankfully that verbosity never seeps into the dialogue, which is always realistically taut and millennial-appropriate.

During the aftermath of one of her too-frequent brushes with trauma, Cale muses, "If this desert was a mother, she was the type to eat her young." Coming from a motherless child, it's a poignant reminder of the dangerous (and irreversible) escape route she's chosen, the inherent solitude it demands, and the uncertain toll that surviving it might exact. One thing is certain about A Prayer for Travelers, as far as Tomar is concerned: it's an unforgettable introduction to an immense and addictive new talent with an ear for the most important sound of all: the fractured, fragile pounding of the human heart.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.