Gone to Look for America is the latest sequel to the popular and well-received trilogy which began with A Fraternal Attraction, and continues the taboo theme of a forbidden romance between two brothers. The book is set in 1968 during one of the most tumultuous years in American politics – with two prominent political assassinations, a pivotal U.S. election, and increasingly violent civil rights demonstrations and anti-war protests. In this third sequel the two brothers hook up with one of Luke’s ex-army buddies, and the three of them hike Kentucky’s spectacular Red River Gorge in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The town of Harperville and its inhabitants feature largely, with much of the social interaction taking place on the front porches of various residents – such as that of the widow Mrs. Waverley, who regularly hosts Bridge and Mah-jong parties: Few of them fully comprehended the arcane rules of Mah-jong but all of them greedily devoured rumour and scuttlebutt, which was after all the lifeblood of Harperville. Her neighbour is an unruly four-year-old whose mother has run off to San Francisco to join the hippie bandwagon. Dressed up to look like Shirley Temple, the child terrorises her ageing grandparents with her violent rages and tantrums. The sense of time and place is skilfully evoked, as is the author’s grasp of vernacular, at a time when gender roles were far more clearly defined and homosexuality rarely discussed: Get Sheriff Wheeler on the subject of bodacious uppity females and effeminate long-haired boys, and you’d never hear the end of it.
The chief entertainment is provided by local venues such as the Wild Horses Drive-in theatre, Lonnie’s Late Nite Diner which has just opened up on Main Street, Steve’s Roadhouse, and Loubelle’s Bakery where the patrons pour out their hard luck stories to its straight-talking and acerbic-tongued owner. Zachary Horne is a regular fixture who doesn’t bother to disguise his crush on Loubelle: Zak was seventy-two compared to her forty-three, but how could you resent some lonely old widower doing his brokeback shuffle back and forth across town? As soon as the sun rose he’d take up his time-honoured place along with all the other old buzzards with their tobacco chaws on the bench outside the courthouse. After about an hour or so he’d hobble across to Loubelle’s coffee shop to get some breakfast, pass the time of day and moon at her. Another regular is Tammi Lynn, who ponders her love-hate relationship with her errant husband and male drinking establishments like the pool hall or roadhouse: Packed to the rafters with mean hard-fisted miners and rowdy truckers, Steve’s Roadhouse was no place for a pregnant woman, even she had to admit. She could see the draw – there was always something going on – but she could also see why wives hated these places. Why did life have to be so damn complicated and why couldn’t you just love things and people wholeheartedly or hate them wholeheartedly?
Central to the book is the close relationship between the two brothers. Joe Turnbull’s misgivings about the unnatural intimacy between his two sons recede into the background when he faces medical problems of his own. With his father temporarily out of action Luke takes on greater responsibilities at the logging camp and sawmill. Meanwhile Joe insists that Rob continues to see a psychiatrist – motivated by his desire to keep his younger son out of the Vietnam War by having him diagnosed as mentally unfit for combat. The therapy sessions with Dr. Gottschald contrive to be both farcical and revelatory at the same time. Luke and Rob are invited to the annual Faculty Picnic by their aunt Edith and uncle Vernon, who teaches at the Community College. As the staff discuss the hot topics of the day – recent anti-segregation laws, large scale race riots and anti-war rallies in major cities – the brothers manage to evade their aunt’s matchmaking schemes and clumsy attempts to pair Luke off with the attractive and wildly popular new elementary school teacher Laura Granger. As the year draws to a close, the Turnbulls’ other relatives from Bell County arrive to spend Christmas with them. As temperatures plummet they hold a “snow vigil” on the back porch to mark the first heavy snowfall of the season. On Boxing Day Luke and Rob take a sled up Happy Holler Hill and have some fun before winding up at Lonnie’s Late Nite Diner.
In its affecting portrait of small-town life and compassionately drawn collection of incongruous characters, the writing is reminiscent of Harper Lee and Carson McCullers. Despite their manifold flaws and shortcomings the principal characters still manage to evoke the reader’s sympathy as they rail against their circumscribed lives and nurture their private dreams: legal secretary Candace Sloane drives a pink Thunderbird and aspires to a more glamorous lifestyle, and the brazenly seductive Denise Randall craves a little excitement outside the suffocating confines of her marriage to a man old enough to be her father. Todd mends autos at the garage whilst hankering after boys (Rob being his especial fixation) and Sheriff Wheeler and his compliant deputy cruise the town in quest of teenage miscreants they can stick the law to. Zachary Horne dreams of his youth and bygone times, as do the mismatched Duane and Tammi Lynne. While Duane hankers after the freedom of his bachelor days his wife simply longs for a husband who will love and cherish her. Laura Granger is trying to “bring a little magic” into the lives of the children she teaches whilst yearning for a drowned brother who will never return. Mrs Waverley is endeavouring, without much success, to “raise the conversational tone” at her Mah-jong parties, whilst little Shirlee next door is dreaming of a mother she never knew arriving on a big white horse to bear her away.
Like the song from which it takes its title, the novel is an elegy to lost innocence but above all it is about a nation’s dreams and unfulfilled possibilities: “It sometimes seemed like all the townsfolk were dreaming about something they once had or wanted to possess – their lost youth, a dream lover, a more glamorous lifestyle, the perfect family life. They were all yearning for something indefinable – each in their own way trying to arrest the march of time.”
NB: Although Gone to Look for America can be enjoyed as a standalone novel, readers wishing to read all three books are advised to read A Fraternal Attraction and The Longest Acquaintance first.