the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery

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In 2007 Tor published Brian Francis Slattery’s debut novel, Spaceman Blues: A Love Song. Set in New York City and its surrounding boroughs, Spaceman Blues is the story of Manuel Rodriguez de Guzman Gonzalez, a Latino immigrant who one day goes missing.

The book starts off with just another day in Manuel’s life: a whirlwind tour through the city’s various neighborhoods. He’s one of those guys who knows everyone, who, throughout his time in New York, has moved effortlessly between diverse communities, making acquaintances, and taking on a near-mythic persona. Visual and well-crafted, the telling of Manuel’s day is possibly one of the most brilliant opening paragraphs I’ve read all year:

It is his last day, and by six in the morning he is already drinking, drinking and shot up, eyes frantic, limbs flailing like he’s ready to explode. At seven he is on the wasted docks across from Manhattan starting fights with the winos and the mechanics; by eight thirty he’s up in the Washington Heights playing dominoes on a fire hydrant some kids are getting ready to crack open with a sledgehammer because it’s so damn hot and the Hudson’s so dirty and the ocean is too far away. By noon he’s been thrown out of thirteen bars. He gets hit by a bus, gets drunk again with some boys in Spanish Harlem bobbing to bachata out of a static-ridden radio. The afternoon he spends smoking sweet tobacco and watching old movies in Arabic with Egyptians in Astoria. He kisses Daoud’s hand in Egypt’s Cafe, whispers something in his ear; then he rides the G back to Brooklyn, hops the train to Brighton Beach, where it’s getting dark and the families are getting ready to go home. The men on the boardwalk totter with vodka, chase women, and eat boiled eggs, and he goes from club to club to tell the Russian Mafia he’s leaving, he won’t bother them anymore. By dark he’s face-up on the pier at Coney Island, watching the fire suns flare in the sky, the first stars of summer, out for that rare time when the humidity breaks and all is quiet, like the city is taking a breath, swelling the land under it, diverting water in the river and the bay to places farther out, deeper places; then it exhales, and all that was displaced returns, all that was disturbed tilts back into place, settles, grows quiet. And then, Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez vanishes. Poof

Because Manuel is the type of person to take off without telling people where he’s going, his disappearance remains unnoticed for twenty-six hours. It’s not until his apartment explodes that those around him begin to speculate. Many think he’s dead — a reasonable conclusion — and soon people gather to mourn. Quickly, the atmosphere takes on an air of nihilistic celebration, another glimpse into Manuel’s temperament and choice of friends. There are three people, however, who take his absence seriously, inspectors Lenny Salmon and Henry Trout, and Manuel’s lover Wendell.

Most striking about Spaceman Blues is the inclusion of minorities — both ethnic and sexual. It’s not often that a protagonist in a science fiction novel is gay; Slattery’s inclusion feels unforced and without stereotype. Similarly, the portrayal of New York City’s immigrant population never feels gimmicky or politicized.

Much has been made of the subtitle: A Love Song. The interpretations are varied, all accompanied by solid arguments; Spaceman Blues, while it houses many stories — lost love and an impending alien invasion — often feels like a love song for multiculturalism, specifically in and around Manhattan. While “melting pot” might not be an accurate description of this city, as it’s a term that assumes a level of mixing and blending we have not yet achieved, New York is a place where those who come from other countries retain pieces of their former life and share them with others. The immigrant experience, a theme often overlooked in everyday life, is certainly long overdue for a spotlight in genre fiction.

On the topic of themes, Slattery consistently merges his various areas of expertise with his novels. A violinist, fiddler, and banjo player, his passion for music manifests itself in Spaceman Blues. Much of it is subtle and flows naturally within the sentences. Other times, it’s overt, like when he describes the relationship between the two inspectors, Salmon and Trout: “Once, they were jazz musicians, riffing on each other’s half-formed thoughts until they arrived through improvisation at a new place”.

His second novel, Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, taps into Slattery’s career as an editor specializing in economics and public-policy publications. The novel, eerily published in October of 2008, is a “speculation on life in near-future America after the country suffers an economic cataclysm that leads to the resurgence of ghosts of its past”.

The first half of Spaceman Blues is the strongest part of the book with the plot weakening in the middle, however, it should be noted that Slattery’s writing style is enjoyable throughout. In their review of Liberation, BoingBoing called his prose “complex, poetic, visionary and reeling, a cross between Kerouac and Bradbury, salted with Steinbeck.”

In April, Tor will publish Slattery’s third novel, Lost Everything, a “story of a man who takes a boat trip up the Susquehanna River, through a version of America that’s been torn apart by a mysterious war, in order to find and rescue his lost wife and son”. Brian’s now moving into publishing-veteran territory — I’m curious to see what he comes up with next.

You have four months to get ready. Let the countdown begin.

Spaceman Blues: A Love Story at IndieBound
Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America at IndieBound
Lost Everything at IndieBound
Brian’s fiction page on his website where you can find excerpts and short stories
Brian on the soundtrack to steampunk
Interview with Brian on the Bat Segundo Show
Interview with Brian on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show
Brian’s Playlist for Liberation at Largehearted Boy
An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer
BoingBoing’s review of Liberation


Written by Gabrielle

January 3, 2012 at 6:35 am

One Response

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  1. […] Gabrielle Gantz on Brian Francis Slattery, whose third novel will be out later this year. […]

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