The American Fever Dream
Americans look east for their fantasy – borrowing Tolkien’s dream worlds and Ireland’s fairies to escape from every day doldrums or, if they happen to be artists, for inspiration. But for British writer Christopher Neilan, the grass is always greener on the other side of the pond, so he set his debut novel, Abattoir Jack, in a sweat-steeped, drug-infused, sex-stained fantasy version of the American West. His lush, sticky prose and rhythmically poetic sentences seem to dance over the novel’s 150 pages.
The main character, Jack, spends hot days in the fictional New Mexico town of San Santa, carving septic meat and smoking cigarettes. He’s a young wastling who thinks he’s smarter and tougher than he really is (think of a blue-collar Holden Caulfield). As the narrator he views the world through lush dramatic eyes. From the sun-stained motel lobbies to the craggy-faced slaughterhouse employees, Jack has a private investigator’s eye for detail, which he filters through his constant internal monologue of exasperation, disdain, and strange respectful love. Neilan’s knack for capturing a distinct first-person character while constructing beautiful sentences rivals the work of Raymond Chandler.
After coasting into town on fumes and a few crumpled dollars, Jack takes a job at the local slaughterhouse. The job is an attempt to make enough cash to reach the coast but slowly turns into an excuse for him to hole up in a seedy motel and rot away. His reasons for being in San Santa are unclear – Neilan hints at vague family issues that sent him on the road from the east coast – but his reasons for staying in San Santa are non-existent. Jack seems to wallow in a perpetual fever dream of unplaced guilt and despair that has no discernible source. Herein lies the novel’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. While Neilan proves himself a natural prose writer, capturing the perfect vibe to catch his readers’ attention and keep them turning pages out of sheer emotional resonance, his lack of specifics lead to an unformed plot.
During an impromptu pub crawl to a fabled underground bar, Jack hears a worn out story about a wad of cash stuffed in a San Francisco bus locker. Later, when he meets the beautiful De S’anna, his dissatisfaction with life reaches critical mass. He jumps into his car, convinces her to join him, and drives into the desert with limited cash, limited gas, and a whole lot of drugs.
That’s it. That’s the plot. Sure, there’s a lot of preamble and a rabbit-trail about Jack’s stolen car and how he has to chase the thieves down on a child’s bicycle, even a mystical ghost story wedged into the middle of the narrative . . . but those things exist for mood and atmosphere and contribute nothing to the plot. As stand-alone sections they are just as powerful as Jack’s downhill road trip with De S’anna, but the end result might leave some readers wishing for a more tangible throughline.
Neilan takes this Tarantino-esque set-up (young lovers, a stash of cash, a fast car) and strips away any conventions. No one else is after the money, there are no thugs on their tail, the two lovers just cruise through the desert and eventually drift into San Francisco where they spiral down into more dark-bar drinking, sharing dingy corners with sundry people, wandering a west coast paradise with the same effortless desperation as they did the dusty hell they left behind. Though Neilan’s single plot device eventually comes into play (with a great yet somewhat muddled twist) the book is open-ended, leaving Jack in a position very similar to where he started, with only the faintest hint that things might change.
In the end, the average reader might take offense at the minimalist plot and frothy language, but this work has an underlying brilliance. Neilan’s young, cocksure prose matches his protagonist’s drunken lifestyle. The writer staggers through pages, careening off of verbs and clever adjectives, and finally collapses in a heap on the final page, exhausted. But in the end he has produced a good novel, a gorgeous long-form poem, and a damn fine piece of art.