Apr/May 2019

Let’s Do Launch

Kathleen Alcott’s novel of space exploration and radical politics

Benjamin Anastas


America Was Hard to Find:

A Novel

by Kathleen Alcott

Ecco

$27.99 List Price

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The Clinton Hill brownstone where Kathleen Alcott’s second novel, Infinite Home (2015), is largely set is about as far away from the Apollo program’s Lunar Module—Lem, in NASA-speak—as fictional territory can be. Edith, the elderly landlord of this neglected five-unit dream factory, hasn’t raised the rent in fourteen years and lives in closer communion with the neighborhood’s past than its multi-racial, gentrifying present; the tenants are eccentrics with maladies and psychic wounds that make it impossible for them to traffic in the world outside. One night, when Edith wanders disoriented into the stairwell, they all gather around to try and ground her by naming a quality about her that they appreciate. Paulie, a keyboard-playing savant with a rare developmental disorder, plugs in a moon-shaped lamp for atmosphere. “Maybe you should hold my moon for help,” he suggests when one of the other tenants, a self-loathing stand-up comic who once wrote a holiday blockbuster while on a “five-day cocaine binge,” falters.

It’s possible to log this scene with the moon-shaped lamp as a throwaway on first reading, a moment of peak twee in the kind of hermetic reality that only exists in the imagination of certain film auteurs, or the authors of literary fiction. But Alcott is a wider-angle novelist than this, and the book’s final third opens up a different frontier altogether, following Edith’s long-lost daughter Jenny, a dropout of the 1960s, to a forgotten commune in Northern California. Now known as Song, she has been living silently apart from the world for decades in a community that reveres her as an original Mother—the same honor, we realize, that Edith’s tenants have bestowed on her in Clinton Hill. The ceremony in the stairwell that we passed over so easily is harder to dismiss now that we see the elemental connection between these two mothers; the moon-shaped lamp is no longer just a prop meant to disarm us with its manufactured innocence, but a reminder, planted strategically, of the moon’s ancient status as the closest heavenly body in the sky, and the root, as Mary Ruefle tells us, of all lyric poetry. It’s also one of those moments when a novel contains the seed for the one that will follow it—an idea that demands a fuller exploration in a very different context.

Click to enlarge

Two stills from Malena Szlam’s ALTIPLANO, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 15 minutes 30 seconds.

America Was Hard to Find, Alcott’s latest novel, trades the moon in plastic for NASA’s Apollo program, the comforts of a Brooklyn brownstone for the safe houses used by a 1960s radical group known as Shelter, and the private neurotic conditions of Edith’s tenants for the AIDS crisis in San Francisco under Ronald Reagan. It is an overtly feminist response, in the covert action of fiction, to the literature of the space program that came before it—think of Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon (1970) and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979)—and a bold self-guided launch into the thermosphere from which the Major American Novel winks down indifferently at us, secure in its status and in its version of the national history. The novel’s ambitions will make comparisons to Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document inevitable, but Alcott’s channeling seems more attuned to primary sources like NASA launch transcripts and to the hallucinatory shiver of Renata Adler’s fiction.

Fay Fern, the novel’s central character, is a ’60s radical in the mold of the Weather Underground’s Diana Oughton: privileged, zealously committed to the cause of ending US imperialism at home and abroad, self-denying to the point of erasure. Vincent Kahn, the first man to walk on the moon, is a test pilot by training and an American cipher who speaks in “stark, lucid imperatives” in the cockpit and hardly at all when he’s on the ground. Wright Fern, Fay’s son, is raised in exile and on the run, a situation that only gets more dire when one of Shelter’s bombs explodes in a New York brownstone and kills a schoolteacher. Wright is hounded by his resemblance to the national hero Kahn, and the question of his paternity grows into one of the novel’s most satisfying story lines. It’s not easy to graft so many cultural touchstones and political movements into one convincing narrative whole, and the procedure doesn’t always take; then again, the novel has been doing the historian’s work imperfectly at least since Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

The novel’s opening section is set at the dawn of the US space program—NASA is still called NACA and the X-15 is the greatest hope for reaching space—and Fay, nineteen, has followed her older sister Charlie in flight from the family estate to sling drinks at an airmen’s hangout in the California desert clearly modeled after Pancho Barnes’s Happy Bottom Riding Club. In The Right Stuff the club is the backdrop for the pilots’ nightly displays of virility and righteous womanizing; for Alcott, the same displays of masculinity have an air of empty desperation about them, and even a little camp. “You should know I’ve got a wife,” Vincent tells Fay on their first drive into the desert in his truck. It’s less a confession than a line from a familiar masculine script that will absolve him of any responsibility for what happens next. For Fay, the pilots are objects of scorn, and only of interest for what they can teach her: “It was a law she’d bought into without realizing,” Alcott writes, “that the only apology a man needed offer the world was his talent.”

Of course, there is the problem of sex, and Alcott is unsparing in her account of the depersonalizing effects of sexual relationships with men like Vincent—Fay is more herself when Vincent’s wife, Elise, comes to confront her about the affair one afternoon “in the depth of two p.m. blue.” She is also less alone in the world. “Walking toward Elise,” Alcott writes, Fay “believed that if someone were to push a hand up the other woman’s neck and into the blue-black of her hair, she would feel it in hers.” (It’s no coincidence that Fay is reading Whitman at the bar the first time Vincent approaches her. Her project is expansion.) The men Fay becomes sexually dependent on have a hollowing effect on both her life and her politics—none more so than Randy, the Vietnam veteran who introduces Fay to “symbolic action” in Ecuador and initiates both Fay and Wright (he is an imperfect child-revolutionary) into the underground dissident life of Shelter. Wright witnesses the brutal Group Criticism sessions, designed to strip the members of their egos so they can be reinvented as more perfect revolutionaries, and listens in on their arguments about the value of abolishing monogamy. Alcott describes the living conditions in the Shelter safe house in upstate New York pitilessly:

A fight had raged for a week in the boarded-up house, which was heated only by the detritus burned in a cracked granite fireplace. Wright watched the splintered legs of end tables disappear into ash, cheap sneakers curl like dead leaves.

The chapter devoted to the Apollo 11 mission to the moon is only fourteen pages long, and it is a marvel of compression and controlled description. Vincent and the other astronauts wake up at 4 AM and have a last breakfast of steak and eggs before they suit up and connect to all the “apparatuses” that will monitor them in space. There is a crowd of over a million people watching live at Cape Kennedy, untold millions more on TV. “It was a place without analogue,” Alcott writes when the launch is over and the men have been delivered into space, “speed here unlike speed anywhere else. Nothing out the window became anything else, reminded them of their modern power.” In this place without precedent or workable metaphor, Vincent, for a fleeting instant, finds the solitude he has “hunted all his life.” Looking out into space from the moon’s surface, he sees “a black he had never seen before, dynamic and exuberant.” It reminds him of the patent leather of “baby girls’ church shoes.” With that his life as a dynamic thinker comes to a close, and Vincent returns to Earth to be pelted with confetti at an endless series of parades and to stew in the privacy of his life as a reclusive American hero. It’s one of the novel’s master-strokes to take Kahn on a trajectory from young hotshot pilot to Lone Aggrieved White Man. Vincent is just a red MAGA hat and a few decades away from attending a Trump rally in Ohio when we last see him.

Wright ends up growing into the most compelling and fully inhabited character in Alcott’s novel, an autodidact from his years of fitful homeschooling in the company of revolutionaries and a failed attempt at norming with his grandparents once Fay has sacrificed herself—quite literally—to her ideals. While he is never entirely sure of his paternity, Wright’s letters to Vincent animate the novel’s final third with a searching intelligence and a depth of insight that make Vincent’s thought about the child’s patent leather shoe seem pedestrian. “I believe I’m the loneliest man in America,” he writes to his father. The response, once it comes, is predictably vague and noncommittal, as if it has been transmitted from the Lunar Module. Wright arrives in San Francisco in 1981, “twenty and objectively beautiful,” and concocts a résumé that will gain him entry into the merry-go-round life of a restaurant server. He discovers a fullness in having sex with men that seemed to elude Fay. He never showers afterward, because he “liked smelling foreign, liked the idea that his body had become partially the province of someone else.” Is it cruel to invent a character like Wright Fern out of whole cloth and drop him in San Francisco at year zero of the AIDS crisis? Is it stupid to invest your heart in him when you know how it will end? Fay’s ambition, at the start of America Was Hard to Find, is to make life “happen more deeply inside her.” Alcott’s novel is a finely calibrated machine that does the same for us.

Benjamin Anastas is the author of three novels and a memoir. He is fiction editor of the Bennington Review.

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