“Gorgeous, compassionate, weird, unpredictable, alarmingly prescient . . . an answer to and sanctuary from the American Century to come."
—Fiona Maazel, New York Times Book Review
When the Twin Towers suddenly reappear in the Badlands of South Dakota two decades after their fall, nobody can explain their return. To the tens of thousands drawn to the “American Stonehenge” — including Parker and Zema, siblings driving from L.A. to Michigan — the Towers seem to sing, even as everybody hears a different song. And on the ninety-third floor of the South Tower, Jesse Presley, the stillborn twin of the most famous singer who ever lived, suddenly awakes. Over the days and months and years to come, he’s driven mad by a voice in his head that sounds like his but isn’t, and by the memory of a country where he survived in his brother’s place.
So begins Shadowbahn, a kaleidoscopic, musical road-trip across the dreamscape of American destiny. Original and fearless in vision and form, Steve Erickson’s novel speaks to our current times, and to a nation “defiling its own great idea . . . the moment that idea was born.”
“A beautiful, moving, strange examination of apocalypse and rebirth.”
—Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods
“Jaw-dropping. A tour-de-forcer’s tour de force.”
—Jonathan Lethem, Granta
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Copyright © 2017 Steve Erickson
Things don’t just appear into thin--
. . . but she hangs up on him before he finishes. “What the . . . ?” he says, staring at his cell phone in dismay and trying to remember if she ever hung up on him before. As he finishes filling the tank of his truck and replaces the pump’s nozzle, Aaron ponders how this became the kind of argument where his wife hangs up on him. He hauls himself back up into the driver’s seat thinking maybe this is really the kind of argument that’s about something other than what it’s about.
Starting the ignition, turning down the oldies station on the radio, he sits a minute irritably checking the rearview mirror. An- other truck waits for him to pull away from the pump. Aaron remembers that he meant to get a donut and Red Bull from the gas station’s convenience market, some concentrated discharge of sugar and caffeine to take him the rest of the way to Rapid City.
The unnamed song
He looks at his cell to see if she’s texted. “Fuck if I’m apologizing!” he says out loud to nobody and nothing; without his donut and Red Bull, he glides back out onto Interstate 90 in his red truck with its gold racing stripes and the bumper sticker that reads save america from itself. When he first put on the sticker, he thought he knew what it meant. The more he’s thought about it since, the less sure he is.
Aaron considers the one time he fell asleep at the wheel. It couldn’t have been longer than a couple of seconds, but enough to start veering off the road until another truck’s horn blared him into consciousness. His heart didn’t stop pounding till he finished the route: If you want to wake yourself up good for the rest of a drive, try falling asleep at the wheel for a moment. On the radio a man and woman sing to each other, not with each other, having their own argument maybe. She hung up on me, he’s thinking, “I’m not apologizing, fuck that.” But he’s had fights with Cilla Ann before and knows, as his indignation subsides, that if she hasn’t texted by the other side of the bridge at Chamberlain crossing the Missouri River, he’ll wind up calling.
Is something else wrong? he wonders. Is there something else going on with her? Can this fight actually be about something as trivial as his wallet gone missing, vanished from his jacket? even if now he’s a driver without an identity. The man and woman singing to each other on the radio aren’t exactly arguing. It’s kind of a cow- boy song but not exactly, half a century old, trippy with spy-movie horn riffs—although Aaron, not caring about music, doesn’t break it down like that. Instead he catches out of the corner of his ear the story that the cowboy sings in the deepest voice anyone’s heard . . .
. . . of the woman seducing him with wine made of strawberries, cherries, and an angel’s kiss in spring, so she can steal his silver spurs while he sleeps. If I’m being honest, Aaron admits to himself ruefully about the conversation with Cilla Ann, I know it’s not true that things don’t just disappear into thin air. If I’m honest and I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that things disappear into thin air all the time.
The woman singing on the radio reminds Aaron that these are the last days of summer, nine days before the fall.
Cross the wide Missouri
The music that he pays little mind is only something in the background to keep him company and awake. “A song finishes,” he says out loud, “ask me what I just heard, I have no idea.” Sometimes instead he’ll listen to the talk radio until it becomes too nuts, or the CB radio that’s broken at the moment, Aaron having tried futilely back in Mitchell to get it fixed. In his early forties, he drives Interstate 90 at least three times a week counting both to and from, sometimes four or five if he can hustle up the commerce. Sometimes when the traffic of other trucks is at a maxi- mum, or just because he feels like it, he cuts down to Highway 44 running through the plains beyond Buffalo Gap.
From the cabin of his truck, he aims himself at anything west- ward that he can see a hundred miles away, at the swathe of blue crushing a horizon invaded by the slightest vapor of white—not so much clouds, since there hasn’t been a cloud in the sky, let alone rain, in forever. Highway 44 is draped with the flags of Dis- union that grow in number the farther west Aaron gets. Later he’ll wonder how it is that on this morning of the argument about the wallet disappearing into thin air, he could have missed there on the flat plain before him the two skyscrapers each a quarter mile high: the breath of Aaron’s country, exhaled from the nostrils of Aaron’s century
All our trials
Soon, the change in the landscape announces itself as always. Dashed lava and the blasted detritus of dying asteroids, slashes of geologic red and gold rendering his truck a chameleon. A song finishes, I have no idea what I just heard, but he still remembers what was playing on the radio the time he fell asleep behind the wheel, a mash-up of spirituals and national folk tunes sung by the most famous singer who ever lived: old times there are not forgotten, look away and His truth is marching on and a third, all my trials will soon be over.
In the two seconds when Aaron fell asleep that time, he had a dream that lasted hours, in which the song appeared as a black tunnel on the highway before him. Of course he has no idea now where the tunnel led, or whether it led anywhere or had any ending, because he woke with a great start to that warning of the other truck’s horn and the open highway, no tunnel in sight.
By midafternoon—the tail end of the five-hour drive to Rapid City from Sioux Falls—Aaron has neither called his wife nor heard from her. He’s buzzy and bleary at the same time, in the crossfire of fatigue and two Starbucks espressos self-administered in Chamberlain. But when he slams on the brakes of the truck, without bothering to check in the rearview mirror whether any- one is behind him, he knows he’s not in the tunnel of any song. He’s not dreaming the thing that suddenly has appeared before him and can no longer be missed as he rounds a corner and emerges from a pass into the Dakota Badlands, with its rocks shaped like interstellar mushrooms and ridges like the spine of a mutated iguana.
He doesn’t bother pulling his truck over to the side of the high- way. Stopping in the middle, he gawks for a full minute, opening and closing his eyes and then opening them again. His truck abandoned mid-highway, Aaron strides to the roadside as though the few extra feet will somehow make what he sees comprehensible; a moment later, he returns to the truck’s cabin. Unsure what he would say on it anyway, he remembers the CB is dead. He pulls his cell phone from his pocket. “Hey,” he says when she answers.
The unheard song
“Hey,” he hears her say back, hesitant and quiet.
“Uh . . .”
“Look, I’m sorry. . . .” A pause, and when he doesn’t reciprocate she says, “Okay then,” annoyed; then another pause. “Aaron?” When he still doesn’t answer, she’s both irritated and worried by his silence. “Must be close to Rapid City by now.”
“I really am sorry”—testy but maybe slightly freaked out? Sometimes he wonders if she wonders if he’s going to leave her.
Listen, because he hears the music, or something like it.
The afternoon sun slides down the sky like a window shade. Aaron studies the little icons on his cell phone. “How do you take a picture with this thing?” he asks. “These things take pictures, don’t they?”
“You sound like your mother,” she sighs, baffled. “Tap the little symbol of the camera. Did you open the icon? So point it at whatever and press the b—”
“How do I send it to you?”
“Little arrow at the bottom . . . send it to me later. . . .”
He says, more emphatically than he’s ever said anything to her, “Now. You have to see this and tell me—”
“Tell you . . . ?”
“—that I haven’t lost my mind,” but he knows he hasn’t lost his mind, he’s not in any dream. He’s not in any tunnel; now another
truck approaching in the distance from the other direction—this one’s front bumper festooned with the flag of Disunion—stops in the middle of the highway too, like Aaron’s. Like Aaron, the other driver gets out of the other truck to walk to the roadside, rubbing his eyes as if in a cartoon. Yet another vehicle nears, and as Aaron turns to gaze over his shoulder, up and down the highway other cars have begun to stop, passengers emerging, everyone’s stupefaction surfacing in thought balloons. The sound that’s like music, that Aaron thought he was hearing, he hears again: Ask me what I just heard, I have no idea, but not this time. “Yeah,” he calls to everyone in and out of earshot, spinning there in the middle of the highway, “oh yeah! Explain that,” gesturing at the two towers.
Did they just appear out of the thin
air into which things don’t just disappear? It’s midafternoon, hundreds of cars and trucks already having passed this way since daybreak; Aaron has driven this highway many times, as recently as the previous weekend, spotting nothing but the forbidding Badlands horizon utterly undisturbed by human endeavor. But before his eyes now, striped by their four horizontal black bands, patterned by their gray verticals—demarcating windows narrow enough to offset the absurd fear of heights felt by the Japanese- American architect who designed the structures to be the tallest that ever stood—twin towers rise from the volcanic gorge.
They aren’t just the tallest things that Aaron has seen, since he knows that wouldn’t be saying much. They’re the tallest things most people have seen, with their two hundred twenty floors be- tween them, each of identical height, except one is topped by a colossal aerial antenna jutting out another four hundred feet. The dual monoliths rocket to the heavens even as they’re ominously earthbound. Aaron lifts the cell back to his ear. “Cee?” he says as calmly as he can manage.
Anyone who’s looked at a television or the Internet or a history book the previous score of years recognizes the buildings instantly. On the other end of the phone she finally says, “I don’t get it.”
Some slight hysteria rises in his voice. “What do you mean you don’t get it?” Let’s not fight about this too, he thinks. “You don’t see it? Them?”
“I do see it. Them. But . . . where are you?”
“Highway 44 in the Badlands. Same 44, same Badlands I drive almost every damn day.”
She says, “Maybe they’re a monument of some kind. . . .”
“A monument?” Aaron practically shouts in disbelief.
“Like Mount Rushmore . . .” but she understands, as he does, that having a fight about this doesn’t make sense. “Okay,” he snaps, “they’re a monument,” realizing this time he’s about to hang up on her. “Don’t go,” she pleads, and then Aaron can hear she’s scared, and knows he’s scared; he peers around at the rapidly swelling sea of human disbelief, the highway traffic jam devolving to a parking lot. “They look just like in the pictures,” she says.
Return to sender
She says, “But it can’t be them, the actual . . . I was seventeen when they came down.” It was a Tuesday, she remembers. “I mean, where did they come from? What are they doing in South Dakota?”
“What are they doing anywhere?” answers Aaron. He had just turned twenty-one. That weekend his pals were taking him out to get him hammered; they wound up not going. He pulls the cell from his ear for a moment to make out something, raises the phone in the Towers’ direction. “Do you hear that?”
“Just your radio.”
“My truck radio’s not on now, and the CB is broken. It’s coming from . . .” He hums to himself, trying to identify it. “What is that, anyway?” He can’t tell whether the music is actually from the Towers themselves or from the earth around them.
“I think I recognize it,” she says.
“You know me and music.”
“One of our parents’ songs,” she says, “or grandparents’. . . .” She starts humming too.
“Yeah. That one.” Wait, he thinks: I do know
this. “. . . address unknown . . . ,” she sings.
“. . . no such number . . . ,” he chimes in.
“. . . no such zone.”
Towers of song (lakota)
Or maybe they hear no such thing. It’s not actually a melody, and it has no lyrics other than what they sing themselves. The “music” rises from out of or around the Towers “like the northern lights,” others will say later, maybe even Aaron to Cilla Ann: “Don’t the northern lights make some kind of sound?”—like a song of the spheres. When the people start coming, first by the hundreds and then the thousands, and then by the tens of thousands, from hundreds and then thousands of miles, from all over the country and then all over the continent and then all over the world, some hear the music and some don’t. Some hear it take shape as a recognizable melody, some hear only a mass of harmonics.
As the crowds arrive over the following days, the families and loners, the footloose and motor-bound, the drivers and passengers and hitchhikers, the cars and RVs and trailers, the shuttles and buses and private jets, the news vans and military jeeps and airborne surveillance, the constituents and pols and advance teams, the graphic designers and Hollywood scouts and novelists who can’t make up anything anymore, the mystics and cynics and the juries-still-out, the Towers loom from the end of what becomes a long national boulevard.
The long boulevard
Drawing closer to view, the constructions of steel and tubing rise from the ground against the azurescape of the sky not as if placed there but rather as the Badlands’ two most enormous buttes, shadow stalagmites of the most possessed geography of a possessed country: skywardly launched tombstones of a lakota mass grave. What once surrounded the Towers is gone. The customs office that stood at Vesey and West, the small bank once at Liberty and Church, the Marriott, and the underground mall where, on that doomsday twenty years ago, a funnel of fire flashed down ninety floors of elevator chutes before exploding into the con- course and sending thousands of morning pedestrians fleeing in panic past the boutiques and eyeglass vendors, newsstands and ATMs, the bookstore at one corner and the music shop with the flower stall behind it at the other corner across from the South Tower, past the entrances to the uptown Manhattan subway and trains to the river’s Jersey side. When the sprinkler system burst, a small tidal wave swept everyone along. On that day, the people at the Towers’ bottom had a more immediate sense of what was happening than those at the top where it happened. But on this day here in the Badlands, all that’s left is the Towers themselves and the wind that has gusted through, and the granite and dirt at their massive forty-thousand-square-foot bases now piled in some places as high as the structures’ third level, like hardened black wax holding two candles erect.
Hallowing / desecration
american stonehenge blares the cover of one newsweekly. To some who gather, the Towers represent a hallowing of the ground. To others, particularly those who lost someone in the Towers twenty years ago, they represent a desecration. Some descendants of those who perished come to the Towers immediately, while some keep their distance, watching TVs and computers from thousands of miles away, watching for the slightest sign of life, the slightest sign that those who were in the Towers on that day are now as present as the Towers themselves.
Otherwise, media is reduced to silence as the story ends where it begins, at the Towers’ edge, unless someone—soldier, adventurer, statesman, anarchist, the indignantly erstwhile or errantly intrepid—should take it upon himself to breach the periphery. But no one breaches either of the buildings. Occasional demands from some quarters that the president should enter clash with counter-demands that she shouldn’t. Everyone simply bears wit- ness to the twin ghosts and whatever three thousand human ghosts haunt it.
I long to hear you
In silence and from a distance, the gathering listens as much as it watches. In the vacuum of what can be scientifically explained or sociologically defined, the music of the buildings provides the only explanation or definition of what has happened. The Patter- son family of four from Virginia hears rising from the buildings “Oh Shenandoah,” once the name—derived from the Oneida word for the antlers of a deer—of an Iroquois chief whose daughter fell in love with a white explorer.
The great national metamorphosis-song, originally a musical news bulletin from the American future, sent back to the rest of the nineteenth century by fortune hunters from across the wide Missouri, “Oh Shenandoah” is a hundred songs in one depending on who has sung or heard it at a given moment over the past two hundred years: pioneer song, sailing song, slave song, Con- federate song, a French trader’s love song for his Indian bride.
Older married couple Traci and Linda hear what they’ll only later identify—recognizing it from a jukebox in a diner on the way back to their cottage in Upper Saskatchewan—as a ballad called “Round Midnight,” not one of the accepted renditions by any number of renowned jazz giants but rather a more obscure interpretation by a 1950s San Berdoo bombshell, the daughter of vaudevillians, who took as her nom de chanson a far European capital where she never expected to sing.
Traveling from their Salt Lake City suburb home, the Mormon Hartmans (all seven) all hear (or at least six, the ten-month-old demurring from consensus) “Ecstasy of Gold,” a dramatic and ghostly choral piece by a composer of Italian Western scores, while the young Ortizes—after a furious war between them over where to spend their honeymoon, with Arturo winning the last skirmish of their marriage that he ever will—pick out the strains of an early-forties composition called “Moon Mist.” Very much of her time and place, Elena has never heard of Duke Ellington.
Terminally ill Justin Farber, sixty-three going on sixty-four and keenly aware he’ll never stalk sixty-five, accompanied only by a jackahuahua dachshund that he named Endgame three years ago when he still thought he could be cavalier about such concepts, hears for the first time in his life a song called “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” by a onetime seventies British glam-rocker turned ambient pioneer. A modern and sophisticated Sunni family from Egypt, the Nours, spend several days on the Internet to determine that what they’ve heard is “Lost Highway” by a long-dead country star; they’re amused, though perhaps make too much of the synchronicity, to meet staying in the same motel the Ramseys from Tennessee trying to figure out that what they’ve heard is a piece—by a Nile-born woman considered the greatest Arabic singer who ever lived—called “Al-Atlal,” which translates into English as “the ruins.” The first lawful authority dispatched to the scene of the Towers, Sheriff Rae Jardin, hears a whistle she can’t identify that fills her with dread, an old Delta blues song whose title she’s never known.
In their silver Toyota Camry, a twenty-three-year-old white brother and his fifteen-year-old black sister set out from Los Angeles with no intention of driving anywhere but the shores of Lake Michigan to visit their mother, hearing only the songs— left strewn on the roadside behind them—of their father’s old playlists.
Enough people report hearing music that collective psychosis can’t be discounted, with the sounds in every head a kind of sonic vision or aural rorschach. Helicopters arriving within minutes of the Towers’ first appearance warily circle the structures, determining that not only are there no waves of music but no waves of any natural sound whatsoever. In fact all data and in- strumentation indicate that the two structures emit no vibration or frequency, not only enveloped by silence but absorbing every vibration and frequency within their proximity.
This creates not so much a black hole as what scientists soon la- bel a “hush vortex,” a misnomer since even a hush has a kind of auditory presence that collapses within the buildings’ airspace. But as the white brother and his black sister from Los Angeles make the long advance in their silver Camry to their mother in Michigan, like Traci and Linda, like Justin and the Pattersons, like the Hartmans and Ortizes and Nours and Ramseys and the hundreds and then thousands and then tens of thousands of others, they’re drawn to the vortex of the Badlands hush, silence descending on them with the horizon.
What People are Saying About This
Shadowbahn maps out an American counter-history where events that have touched all Americans, and people from all over the world, are given new shape and speak in new voices. As both a revisioning of a national story and a family drama, the book has a simultaneous weight and lightness, an older person's high seriousness and the ability of younger people to see right through it.
There is no other American novelist whose books combine our universal terrors and melancholies with the deeply individual remorses and love of family, and always with language like no one else commands. Every time I open a Steve Erickson novel, I am whirled into a hundred layers of story of the stories no one else imagines and I can't put it down. This time, the Twin Towers and the prairie badlands: What could be more American, and more of the world?
Who else but Steve Erickson could have imagined the hallucinatory composites that fill Shadowbahn? In his hands, history is shadowed by sparkling possibilities, dreams become reality, and reality returns us to the music, the dangers, the beauty and whimsy of the past. The twin towers rising out of the Badlands provide a perfect illusory destination. Even as the novel veers and twists in the most unexpected directions, all its parts converge with a force no reader will be able to resist.
Shadowbahn is adventure, romp, exploration, an act of faith, dangerous, funny, upsetting, certain to annoy the complacent (literary and otherwise), and imparts the uneasy sensation that you're not reading it, it's reading you.