June 23, 2010

Book review: "The People Who Watched Her Pass By," by Scott Bradfield

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The People Who Watched Her Pass By, by Scott Bradfield

The People Who Watched Her Pass By
By Scott Bradfield
Two Dollar Radio

One of the obvious main benefits of small presses is that since both costs and expectations are lowered, it allows for much more passionate and idiosyncratic choices over what exactly gets published in the first place, titles which everyone involved knows beforehand will be intensely disliked by some readers, which is then made up for by the equal number of people who intensely love it; take for example the tiny Ohio press Two Dollar Radio, who I became a big fan of earlier this year because of the wondrous Some Things That Meant the World to Me by Joshua Mohr, and who was kind enough to send along a couple of their other new titles as well. I just finished one of them this week, Scott Bradfield's The People Who Watched Her Pass By, which like I said strikes me as the very reason small presses exist in the first place; because even though I ended up liking it quite a lot, it's patently obvious that many others will not do the same, the kind of book guaranteed to cause controversy the moment its subject matter is even brought up. And that's a testament to Two Dollar Radio, I think, for taking a chance on a deserving book like this, when most mainstream publishers wouldn't touch a hot potato like this with a ten-foot pole.

Because what this book is about, see, is a five-year-old girl who gets kidnapped one day by a creepy neighbor; but instead of being the usual Lifetime-movie cautionary tale, lit veteran Bradfield (this is his fifth book) uses the concept to turn in a lyrical, surreal, surprisingly poetic tale, a journey across the backwater parts of the US that by the end becomes an intriguing combination of Sam Shepard and David Lynch. And this takes some getting used to, to be frank, with even I not quite sure at first what to think of it all, which is quite obviously why this is the kind of book you'll only find on a small press; because either you'll eventually accept the idea of our spartan heroine Salome Jensen being merely a symbol, in service of a larger and grander point that Bradfield is trying to make, or you'll never accept the idea, and instead see this book as some sort of icky ode to the fun adventures that come with child kidnapping.

In fact, this story really comes off more like a fairytale than anything else, albeit the kind of challenging, grown-up fairytale that fuels such similar projects as, say, Gus Van Sant's equally audience-splitting movie My Own Private Idaho; because far from ever being in any kind of serious trouble, for example, our adolescent protagonist actually manages to thrive for months at a time as a survivalist camper, and also manages to stay for a time in the homes of dozens of random adults without a single one of them bothering to call Child Services. Add to this, then, that Salome often speaks with the complexity of an adult herself, plus the plenty of plot turns that sometimes border on the ludicrous (such as a religious cult whose members have infiltrated the various educated sectors of the child-welfare system, like a judge and a lawyer and a social worker, so that they can work in collusion to illegally "punish the wicked" and bring about a new golden age), and you suddenly start seeing more of what Bradfield is going for in this book -- that it's more a sly examination of the tics and quirks found in so-called "White Trash America" (my term, not his), a look at the crumbling backroads and small towns of this country that at some points turn almost post-apocalyptic in his characterizations. (In fact, there are big parts of this book that reminded me of a kiddie version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.)

If you're able to get into the groove of such an unusual story, you're going to be immensely pleased by the end, a book that turns out to be as quietly disturbing as it is subtly funny; but there's also a good chance that you'll never get into this groove, in which case you will likely find The People Who Watched Her Pass By nothing more than a piece of glib, manipulative garbage, with neither of these opinions necessarily "wrong" or "right" from an objective standpoint. And like I said, this is what I find so great about small presses, is that they tend to be filled with visionaries who understand the artistic importance of titles like these; and since these presses aren't bogged down with dozens of mid-level executives all with Brooklyn condo payments to make, they can afford to take bigger chances with what exactly they put out, which is why such presses so imminently deserve our gratitude and support. Although it may very well not turn out to be your cup of tea, I highly encourage you to take a chance on this book anyway; and needless to say that I'm looking forward to the next Two Dollar Radio title in my reading queue, Xiaoda Xiao's The Cave Man, which I'll be tackling here at the website in just another couple of weeks.

Out of 10: 8.8

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:00 PM, June 23, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |