loulamac’s #CBRV review #66: Under the Same Stars by Tim Lott

Texas_State_Highway_222,_King_County,_Texas

It’s August 2008, and the western world is reeling in the wake of the sub-prime collapse. Salinger Nash is 40, and is the kind of middle class intellectual who has opinions on global political-economic matters. He makes ends meet as an illustrator, living with his girlfriend in the suburban sprawl to the north-west of London. Out of the blue one day, Salinger gets a call from his elder brother Carson, who lives in New Orleans. Carson has received an unaddressed letter from their estranged father’s wife. Salinger hasn’t seen his father for thirty years, not since Henry followed his dream and moved to America, abandoning his wife and children. America captivated their father (the brothers are named after his two favourite American writers), and Carson proposes that he and Salinger go on a road trip to track him down.

Salinger has been plagued by depression all his life, and has a strained relationship with Carson, who has hasn’t seen since their mother’s funeral two years before. Despite this, he finds himself on a plane to New Orleans, and over the next couple of weeks has his world view challenged by his born again Christian brother and sister-in-law, an American Indian healer, a redneck cop and his stepmother. He unearths some uncomfortable truths about his childhood, and seems to come to terms with who he is.

As the reader, I never came to terms with who Salinger is. Early on, we are told that Salinger likes ‘splashing out on the basics’ – expensive sourdough bread and French unsalted butter – while his girlfriend is happy with ‘Kingsmill and Anchor’; he reads a broadsheet, she a tabloid. So within a few pages I realised I was reading yet another contemporary novel peopled by unlikeable narcissists, and again I can’t tell if the writer was trying to make a statement or if he didn’t realise how unpleasant his protagonist is. Deliberate or not, the result was that I struggled to enjoy a book that has some flashes of brilliance, particularly in the dialogue between Salinger and the pompous Carson. These flashes couldn’t save it though, as in other places the prose is over-written and fussy (‘The rude snorting of a rubbish truck grew louder and louder as it approached, pig-like, along the street outside’, the word ‘lachrymose’ used twice in three pages). The constant references to the great American writers of the twentieth century don’t help either. Steinbeck this isn’t.

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