Wire to Wire
By Scott Sparling
Tin House, 2011
Wire to Wire isn’t really a novel about jumping trains. Although its characters talk about trains, ride train ferries, dream about rushing along empty freight cars and heaving up to nowhere, most of the tension and relationships of the novel take place on stationary ground, in bedrooms, in parked cars, bars. It’s Northern Michigan during the fin de siècle of the aimless 1970s and all this beer isn’t going to drink itself.
Slater veered off course, ducking into the shabby entrance of Paradise Squared, the old and usually empty strip club. At the table farthest from the stage, he ordered three Rolling Rocks as insurance against the speed. Beer, the anchor.
It was a plan, he told himself. Speed in the afternoon, a little more speed in the early evening, then die down with a brew or two. Not a great plan, maybe, but a plan all the same.
There is so much going, thoughtwise and plotwise, in Wire to Wire, so many timeframes and angles, that it’s difficult to convey one real unified impression that the work leaves behind except perhaps disorientation and flux. Even when they sit in one place and drink, or sniff glue, the characters in Scott Sparling’s book are all on the run, dashing back to old defeats, trancing out. Here’s what they’re running from:
The door to the Sawhorse opened and a new group of wedgeheads blew in. A batch just like them were at the other pool tables. Oblivious to everything. They’d end up in mobile homes with pregnant girls from Durand and Onondaga. In a year or two they’d be slugging quarters into Maytags while their girlfriends changed diapers on orange tables by the dryers. They were durable guys, made for hard wear, and they would get it. Meanwhile they shot pool and swung hammers and their share of things got smaller and smaller and they didn’t even seem to notice.
But you run a risk by refusing to swing a hammer, dropping out to ride the rails. Michael Slater takes 33,000 volts to the top of his head while riding the roof of a freight car through a switchyard in Detroit: “to the electricity, he was just a bigger, softer kind of wire.” The story of his subsequent loves and bad luck is the body of Wire to Wire. Later, this same Michael Slater stabs a man to death in self defense in the interior of another freight car. (The freight car is the proscenium arch over Michael Slater’s image of himself.) Later still, inside another car, one of his oldest friends, Harp, bottoms out.
1978: high criminals and yuppie enablers are set to inherit the Midwest (“what used to be the world was becoming the marketplace”). Fortunately, it’s drifters and eccentrics for us: there’s Charlie, a philosopher of power relationships who sublimates his impotence to whoremongering and dealing in powders and pills, a man who smiles to hide his teeth, makes his living by running a nude parasailing operation on the lake and bribes the local undersheriff to be safe. There’s his sister Lane, moonchild and earthchild, unhappy absent her freedom and airplane glue; Lane most loves recklessness, meaninglessness—and like a lot of the women in Wire to Wire (Selda, Dimi, Cassie, Melinda, Sue) she’s a sip and a puff away from slipping out of those clothes and onto one of our heroes. Harp is her steady, but Michael Slater is his best friend and Wire to Wire is Slater’s story as much as it’s anybody’s.
After taking that powerline to the head and getting himself emergency-trepanned and shipped off to Arizona to dry out, Slater learns to throw a blue dart knife and nurses a yen for adventure. Unfortunately for him, he runs into Ed Dickenson, a killer who wandered in from a Cormac McCarthy novel and who tracks Slater back to Wolverine, back to Slater’s old friend Harp and his new girlfriend Lane, and to the hundred lines of hurt rumbling toward Slater out of his own past.
Meanwhile, Charlie wants to burn down a new condo settlement (“Right or wrong! Right or wrong! That’s so fucking quaint!”) to pay off his bulk weed debt, so he hires Harp, who ducks out on him and vamooses to run the rails. Meanwhile, Lane not only gets into bed with Slater but gets him sniffing glue (“like being inside a cavern, but with everything glowing and warm”) which pisses off both Harp and Charlie and, on top of a couple of difficult-to-hide dead bodies, sets the rest of the wheels rolling. Neither Harp nor Mitch nor Lane are money-hungry, but they find themselves caught up in the machinations of the cupiditous (“someday when it’s too late, Harp thought, we’ll all be sorry we didn’t tell the money to go to hell”).
But this isn’t a novel about crime or revenge either (pace the dust jacket). It’s about how life just keeps pushing its survivors into new troubles, new tales. It’s about how wrapping up and letting go are only ever temporary conditions and the pleasures of today are the dangers of forever after. It’s also about the choice between being a spectator of the rush and being a part of that rush. Choose one and you’ll exhilarate yourself until you flicker out, chose the other and you’ll hang around and be haunted. So Wire to Wire ends up being what so many pulp writers think they’re making but end up missing: an exploration of the proper aims of existence.
Ride: past scrap heaps and factories and beaten bums waving, past the ends of towns, through empty fields and junkyards, past everything man has made and the things man can never make, eventually past light. At night Harp stood in the boxcar and a halo rode the train, low above the engine, while landscapes turned amber, half-finished, pristine, and never glimpsed again.
In this sense Wire to Wire is more adventure novel than crime novel. Where can you escape to and who can you escape with? Lane can’t be happy without a constant rush, and she pays for it; Harp, too. Slater is a different story: “always watching and holding back,” a man in recovery who finds himself half in and half out of the world of constant action until a choice is made for him and his world disappears.
The transient nature of his position hit him. He was sitting in front of a console. Someone had sat there before him, someone would after. Once, the room itself had been a place where birds flew and rain fell. Someday, certainly, it would be again. The vision was as quick as it was terrifying.
Slater is a good name for our hero—it was Samuel Slater who industrialized America, and it’s in the wake of that vanished industry that Michigan suffers, though it suffered keenly before the divestment of the automakers that began in the late 1960s and resulted, in the time of Wire to Wire, in the depopulation that continues today. The novel’s Slater reads in a book called The Price of Beaver about the disappointments and usurpations that befell Michigan before the mills and factories closed, before the pine trees vanished:
Despite the title, the book had nothing to do with pussy. Just the opposite—the short volume was a moralistic history. It traced every bit of Michigan perfectly, every miscarriage of justice to fluctuations in the price of beaver pelts. The betrayal of the Potawatomi and the Council of Three Fires. The destruction of pine forest. The extinction of the passenger pigeon. The Detroit Lions. It all went back to beavers and the greed that their pelts inspired.
Set against this treachery was the warrior Tecumseh, heroic but doomed. The Price of Beaver presented Tecumseh as a lost hope. His name meant Panther Streaking across the Sky. He spoke four Indian languages and English. His favorite book was Hamlet. He was dedicated in astronomy and predicted an eclipse—a day when night would fall at noon. When the eclipse occurred, Tecumseh’s power grew.
Of course, in the real world, there was a fine line between noble warrior and crazed loner.
It’s worth noting that not only the characters but their readers find their perceptions distorted by the enormous amounts of controlled substances afloat on Harp’s, Lane’s, and Slater’s bloodstreams. Sparling’s characters always, always have beers in their hands and joints in their shirt-front pockets. He writes about drugs well (“Slater ran his tongue around his mouth, feeling how his gums gripped his teeth. It was a good, tight, amphetamine feeling”) but it’s hard not to feel a little incomprehension and vicarious sickness that all of these people can wreck themselves so thoroughly and still manage to land with both feet on the platform of a moving train. I counted only one reference to a hangover in 390 pages and that hangover appeared pretty manageable. One can only gape and shake one’s head. Still, I suppose part of this intoxication is about gambling—with sanity, with safety, with life—and that’s also a part of what Wire to Wire is about.
As one character says of another, “some terrible part of himself had gotten loose”—how important is it to keep that monster caged, and how much is it a lie? And does caging one monster end up giving another free rein? For asking questions like this and for all of the reasons above, Wire to Wire is a fun ride – it’s also more than a fun ride.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010. He is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly