One could say that American literature was founded on the road; Mary Rowlandson, James Fenimore Cooper, and many of the American novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have sent their heroes out on a journey. American society is congenitally mobile, and the road has been the home of its most memorable characters. It is therefore only fitting that Stephen Wright would situate his Going Native characters out on the highways of the western United States; however, their journey is into the eye of the nation’s nightmares.
The novel opens with a woman preparing dinner in her well-appointed suburban home outside Chicago and awaiting her guests, Tom and Gerri Hanna. Wylie Jones, her husband, eventually arrives after surviving a day he describes as “murderous.” There is an air of strained uneasiness that explodes when Wylie and Tom run out to a convenience store and find a dead body in the parking lot. After dinner Wylie wanders about the house, visits his two sleeping children, and then vanishes into the night.
This first chapter represents the first of eight separate though related stories that make up the narrative, each of which involves Wylie in a series of personas. The second chapter shifts three blocks away to another, decidedly seedier, suburban house where a pair of crack addicts, Mr. CD and Latisha Charlemagne, quarrel, make love, drive to the mall, and score more dope, each locked into a private fantasy. As they travel into chemical oblivion, Mr. CD grows increasingly paranoid, convinced that an intruder is hiding behind a tree on his front lawn. This section ends with mouthfuls of abuse, broken furniture, and mayhem, as someone steals Mr. CD’s green 1969 Ford Galaxie and drifts off into the dark.
Chapter 3 is set somewhere west, most likely Nebraska, where a hitchhiker named Billy Clay is rousted by state troopers and then hitches a ride with Randy Sawyers, a truck driver who insists that his passengers entertain him with constant conversation or be subjected to enduring his Madonna tapes. When Clay remains taciturn, Sawyer turns on the music and is then stabbed in the chest. Clay hitches one or two more rides and eventually settles into a green Ford Galaxie heading nowhere. The driver appears to be the next of Clay’s victims until he reveals that he has stolen the car. Clay panics, insists that he stop the car, and leaps out.
The scene shifts to the Yellowbird Motel in Cool Creek, Colorado, where the proprietor, Emory Chase, spends his days checking tenants in and out and mentally revising the screenplay to “The Syn Man,” his ticket out of obscurity and Cool Creek. Eluding his observation is the fact that his family is quickly receding from his grasp: His wife has been drifting into aimless affairs, and one of his daughters, Aeryl, is running away with Lazlo, devotee of heavy metal bands and dime-store Satanism. The two hitch a ride with a man named Tom in a green Galaxie and proceed to insult him and make love in his backseat. When Lazlo demands that they make a rest stop, Tom and Aeryl drive off, stranding him.
The next chapter opens with Perry Foyle, cinematographer manqué, videotaping unsuspecting lovers through a hole in the wall of his hotel room. Foyle collects his tapes and heads over to a bacchanalia at the Rainbow Bridge, where Freya, porn star turned director, purchases the tapes and demands that Foyle stay and photograph a short that she is about to shoot. The vignette teems with Foyle’s brief encounters with the decadent glitterati, each more hopelessly narcissistic than the last. Frustrated in his attempts to secure a companion for the night, he returns to his room and begins filming a new tryst that suddenly turns deadly when a man sets a hooker on fire. Foyle falls over in shock and is then visited by the man, who shoots him.
The scene shifts farther west, to Las Vegas, where Jessie Horn, survivor of a pair of abusive relationships, lives with Nikki, whom she met after witnessing a horrible car accident, and her two children. The two women work for Nikki’s parents at the Happy Chapel, and all seems idyllic until a couple, Tom and Kara, arrive and ask to be married. After they leave, Nikki discovers that a number of rings have been stolen, and she and Jessie wrangle over whose fault it is.
Chapter 7, a rewriting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), is the longest of the book, and on the surface it is unlike the others. It is novella length and is set in the jungles of Borneo, where Hollywood producer Drake Copeland and his actress wife Amanda leave...