BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 20, 2012
by Antoine Wilson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 292 pp., $24
THERE ARE NO panoramas to be seen from the flat, unlovely boulevards of Panorama City, California. Formerly a sprawling sheep and dairy ranch that became, during the postwar years, one of the first planned communities in the San Fernando Valley, the area was the bustling home of one of General Motors’s largest assembly plants. It also featured an innovation-minded Carnation research lab and a network of neighborhoods full of then-hopeful-looking ranch houses. Today, after decades of decline (the GM plant closed in 1992, the lab was razed to build a high school), Panorama City is ripe for reinvention, its radiant mid-century optimism surviving mostly in memories, its prevailing mood one of gritty defensiveness.
One would think that this landscape would provide ample inspiration for Great Recession literature, but in his second novel, Panorama City, Antoine Wilson proves to be less interested in exploring this terrain than in developing an idiosyncratic perspective through which to filter it. It’s not that this author, a Los Angeles writer, isn’t paying attention to his milieu. His first novel, The Interloper (2007), showed a suave familiarity with his SoCal environment, displayed, for example, in the spot-on recollection of “the tinny patter of rain on the metal plate of the air-conditioner … the night-blooming jasmine of February, the wild winds of April, the muggy fogs of June, the dry hot Septembers, the smell of brush fire smoke on the hot Santa Ana winds of October.” Clearly Wilson knows the seasonal rhythms of L.A., with its interplay of enchantment and emergency, subtlety and harshness.
Even so, the setting of The Interloper never played a central role; instead, it was the voice of the novel’s obsessive narrator that came across as the book’s most prominent feature. That narrator, Owen Patterson, turned the novel into an unbalanced confession, recording his story while serving time in prison for murder. The ensuing creepy/comic revenge tale made a beginning novelist’s misstep in its rash Nabokov-worship: despite Wilson’s best efforts, Owen was no Humbert Humbert, and fell short in eliciting readers’ sympathies or, in the end, much of their interest.
The Interloper enjoyed a warm reception, and Wilson’s narrative experimentalism raised more than a few interested eyebrows as a promising contribution to contemporary West Coast fiction. He joins many local innovators bent on transforming Southern California landscapes into something richer and stranger—writers like Aimee Bender, Ben Ehrenreich, and Victoria Patterson. A second novel by Wilson, then, is a noteworthy event.
But Wilson’s devotion to voice above all other narrative elements is even less effective in Panorama City than it was in The Interloper. The eccentric protagonist this time is twenty-eight-year-old Oppen Porter, who is dictating his story into a cassette player while lying in a hospital bed after suffering some serious injuries from a bicycle accident in his rural Central Valley hometown of Madera, California. By his side sits his wife, Carmen, eight months pregnant with their first child. Believing that he might be dying, Oppen is determined to record his life history so that his son will one day understand his father’s quest to become “a man of the world.”
“For the first twenty-seven years of my life nothing happened to me,” Oppen confesses to the cassette player in the novel’s early pages. In contrast to the unhinged guile of The Interloper’s Owen Patterson, Oppen’s primary trait is a pure-souled innocence: he is Napoleon Dynamite to Owen’s Dexter. He explains that for those twenty-seven years he lived with his reclusive father a few miles outside the agricultural town of Madera (about 230 miles north of Los Angeles), working odd jobs and getting around town on a beloved three-speed bicycle. A tall, trusting, good-natured fellow who likes to wear binoculars, he is the target of much local ridicule, which he doesn’t really mind. Everyone in town calls him Mayor, including the actual mayor. Life is good.
Things change, however, when his father dies suddenly, and Oppen undertakes to honor the dead man’s wishes by burying him in the backyard. This doesn’t go over well with the authorities, who insist on a reburial in a proper cemetery, or with the good people of Madera, who start eyeing Oppen with discomfort. Soon enough, Oppen’s Aunt Liz, a longtime resident of Panorama City, decides he needs supervision and summons him to come to live with her. Though he has never left Madera and has not seen this relative in years, he recognizes the need for a fresh start, and complies.
It’s at this point that a reader might hope the action will take off, but no dice. Once he is in suburban L.A., Oppen tries to persuade his Aunt Liz that a down-at-heels salesman whom he met on the southbound bus from Madera is a worthwhile friend and mentor. Aunt Liz strenuously objects, and forbids the man to enter her home. “You have been living a village idiot’s life,” she informs her nephew, and sets about turning him into a solid citizen, finding him a job at a local fast-food place, sending him to a therapist to manage his grief over his father’s death, and introducing him to the Lighthouse Fellowship, a Christian organization in a nearby mini-mall.
Not much of consequence happens after this, though the salesman and Aunt Liz continue to clash. While Oppen believes the salesman is a great thinker who can teach him how to be a man of the world, Aunt Liz sees the huckster as a grubby representative of the area’s decline, a scourge to be loathed and resisted. “As sorry as it made her to say it,” Oppen remembers Aunt Liz insisting, “Panorama City was no longer the haven it had been when she’d first moved there, before all the elements arrived. But she was going to stay the course, she said, decent people would be back soon.” We don’t get much more than this about the decline of Panorama City; from the fertile grounds of this urban decay, Wilson chooses to cultivate too little.
If the plot is thin, the message is even thinner. Oppen is supposed to be something of a holy fool, in the tradition of Candide, Prince Myshkin, or Forrest Gump. Like those figures, he is a character whose warm-hearted innocence is meant to rebuke readers’ cynicism and urge them to see the essential goodness in all people, even among the assorted phonies, misfits, and lowlifes in the fast-food joints and religious storefronts of Panorama City. “I was there for forty days and the people were decent,” Oppen insists, quasi-biblically, once he returns home to Madera. He might be a “slow absorber,” as he often describes himself, but he has a moral intelligence that’s meant to be a lesson to us all. While a high-minded fable set in a tawdry modern environment makes for some decent comedy, as a morality tale this is pretty scant stuff, and the blandness of the book’s motive drains away most of its energy.
But it is unfair to be too critical of this paucity of action and purpose. It is voice that interests Wilson, and here he doesn’t stint. The problem is that it’s not much more compelling than the limpid plot. Wilson allows his narrator to indulge in droning sequences of run-on sentences, some as long as a page and a half. There are long, obsessive ruminations on French fries and push pins. More than a few passages are near-parodic in their meticulous attention: “I found Aunt Liz waiting in the driveway, in her Tempo, she was waiting in the idling Tempo, she had the air-conditioning on, she had her visor mirror down and was examining her face and making small adjustments to her makeup.” This free association is faithful to the character’s world view: he’s not a simpleton, but he’s a simple soul. Yet it seems that the narrative limitations are the author’s as much as the protagonist’s. As in The Interloper, the uniformity of the confessional point of view becomes a liability instead of an asset, reducing Wilson’s would-be panoramas to a pinprick hint of light.
Donna Rifkind writes reviews for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.