The Rhythm of the Road by Albyn Leah Hall

The Rhythm of the Road is Albyn Leah Hall’s second novel, though the first to be distributed in the United States. Like Deliria (1994), it focuses on drugs, American and British youth culture (especially music), and the effects of divorce; in general, Hall’s strengths appear to be characterization and tone — which is perhaps unsurprising since she’s a psychotherapist — while her plots tend toward the predictable. The Rhythm of the Road features Josephine Pickering and her father Bobby, whose quiet life outside of the mainstream is disrupted when they encounter the lead singer of an alt-country group, Cosima Stewart and Her Goodtime Guys.

The Rhythm of the Road actually tells two stories: the story of Josephine and Bobby, and the story of Bobby and Rosalie, Josephine’s mother. These stories turn out, at bottom, to be the same: They are about flight. When Rosalie Chapkis meets Bobby in London in 1985, she is an art student from Encino, California, spending her time away from home acting out an elaborate fantasy of rebellion, one in which she dresses Goth, drinks way too much, does whatever drugs are available, and reads (apocryphal!) books of Lacanian art theory. Bobby Pickering, the handsome Irish bassist in a cover band, is just another element in this fantasy. When, inevitably, Rosalie gets pregnant, her parents fly in to extricate her, leaving Bobby his dream truck as reparations.

In effect, Bobby raises Josephine (“Jo”) in the truck, taking her with him on all of his runs. She doesn’t much go to school, and so pretty much her only company is Bobby, the country music they listen to, and the occasional hitcher. What Jo only poorly understands is that Bobby suffers from depression, fits of blackness that he describes as “static” in his head. As puberty arrives for Jo, and she becomes both more sexual (and also more like her mother) and more rebellious, Bobby’s depression worsens. This coincides with a series of encounters with Cosima Stewart and her band, such that Jo more or less imagines Cosima to be, if not quite a surrogate mother, at the very least a kind of big sister who can help her through.

Hall’s handling of details such as the formal arrival of puberty is remarkably delicate, and she’s great at simultaneously making connections explicit while hiding them from Jo. On the night of Jo’s first period, for example, she also learns to hate her father: “I tried not to look at Bobby now, but he was in my eyes no matter what; his jeans, his heavy shoes, his flat brown hair. I’d never hated him before, not even a little, but now I wanted him to piss right off and leave me alone with Cosima Stewart”. But when Cosima and her friends leave, Jo’s immediately able to feel superior to Cosima’s friends, who “didn’t get to spend her days driving up and down the country, to Europe and Ireland sometimes, too, listening to Cosima all the time”. As a result, Jo “thought it was the excitement that made my stomach tug again, a happy new hurting inside me”. When she realizes the truth, however, she realizes that Bobby won’t really know what to do, and, indeed, though her “hate for him had gone, mopped up like the blood,” he can’t help her grow up.

Hall’s interleaving of love and hate, excitement and resentment, pride and disappointment dramatizes our tendency to believe whatever we feel at the moment is the truth; that is, our lack of self-awareness about our ambiguous emotional motives. This tendency–especially but hardly exclusively the province of teenagers — plays out in the novel in Jo’s heartbreaking inability to pause and think about what she’s doing. Her breakdown after her father’s death is thus merely an extreme example of relatively normal behavior.

Jo’s trip to the United States plays slightly more comically than it probably should. Jo immediately hooks up with a guy named Cleat, who drives a stolen truck, carries a Glock (of course), and tweaks his homemade meth. Naturally, she’s attracted to his hatefucking: “I wanted him inside me again, pounding me full of his hate and making me forget about everything else for a while”. I don’t doubt that guys like Cleat exist — and are even named “Cleat” — but he reads like a sociological abstract of “trouble, American-style” rather than a character. In general, the plot machinations that lead to the novel’s climactic moments creak pretty noticeably.

PopMatters readers will probably be interested to know, too, that The Rhythm of the Road is saturated with all sorts of music, from Alison Krauss to Zero 7. Hall has said that the book is in part about the “tragedy of music,” although that’s misleading when quoted on its own. The tragedy of music, on the evidence of The Rhythm of the Road is the way it lends flesh to powerful escapist fantasies, which for some people prove more appealing than the real world. That fantasy structures this whole novel: Bobby and Jo love the road because American country music lends it glamour; Jo stalks Cosima because she mistakes the singer for a friend; Bobby’s own isolation from his family stems from his inability to recognize his mother as a singer. One of the saddest early scenes in the novel is when Jo wakes up because her father’s masturbating so fervently to Cosima’s music that he’s rocking their truck. Music in the novel is the real gateway drug, the ignis fatuus that leads certain kinds of personalities to self-destruction. Noticeably, however, it does not do this for the actual performers who sometimes act stupidly or insensitively but who also seem somewhat more cognizant of reality’s demands.

Hall has been compared to Zadie Smith and Mark Haddon, which makes sense because all three writers live in England. The comparison to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is probably more intelligible: Haddon’s Christopher has to make sense of a world his Asperger’s Syndrome prevents him from recognizing fully, and Hall’s Jo finds herself struggling to distinguish her moments of lucidity from her moments of genuine illness. The Rhythm of the Road‘s broader temporal perspective, however, lends it an air of tragedy, inasmuch as Jo appears to be repeating her parents’ woes at an accelerated rate. (Her first night away from Bobby, she sleeps with Cosima’s boyfriend while high on cocaine; her disintegration after Bobby’s death is accompanied by bursts that sound like his “static.”) Albyn Leah Hall has written a lovely book about the curse of adolescence: the unwitting ways that we repeat our parents’ lives, no matter how outwardly different they seem.