Going Native (Vintage, 305 pages), published in 1994, was Stephen Wright’s third novel. Meditations in Green (1983) was inspired by his experiences in Vietnam during the war. M31: A Family Romance (1988) is set among UFO cultists, who rely on an autistic child to communicate with aliens. Going Native is—more or less—a picaresque novel that follows a sociopath who abandons his Chicago family to travel to Los Angeles. It is not an easy trip. It is not an easy book. But it is a fascinating one, and, as I hope to show, one that says important things about modern American life.
The book’s structure is a series of independent chapters, each in a different place, each with different characters, all threaded together by one character and the green Ford Galaxie he steals.
Chapter One is a backyard barbecue in suburban Chicago. Rho prepares the meal; greets her guests, Tom and Gerri; sends the children off to bed with the baby sitter; her husband, Wylie, returns home; he and the other husband go to the local Feed ’n’ Fuel for charcoal where a robber has just been killed leaving the store, which becomes a story for the women when they return home. Here is Rho’s response to a question late in the chapter for a sense of Wright’s style:
“If Rho is expected to comment, she misses her cue. The diverse demands and unforeseen surges of the day, in tandem with tonight’s elevated blood alcohol levels, have driven her circuitry into a sputtering staticy condition near blown-out or worse, she’s phasing eccentrically in an out, her attention temporarily and fiercely magnetized by the oddest fragments of isolated fact, so while Gerri natters on, from bats and sex and reincarnation to—nothing hard now to amuse her audience—stale crowd-pleasers of lust and gaucherie among her wealthy clientele, Rho is pleasantly tuned to the resonant sound of hissing meat.”
At the end of the chapter, the end of the evening, Rho’s husband has vanished and taken Tom’s identity.
Chapter Two, in the same suburban Chicago neighborhood, two middle-class crack heads smoke dope, have sex, come down, score more crack, get high, get violent, discover their green Ford Galaxie stolen. Such a précis cannot, unfortunately, convey the texture of Wright’s images of the filthy house, the couple’s drug-logic, their random memories, and the pleasure, despite all, of losing oneself in the drug.
Chapter Three takes place on the road west of Chicago as a hitchhiking drifter is picked up and dropped off and ultimately murders a long-haul trucker good enough to give him a ride but foolish enough to ignore his taste in music. At the chapter’s end, one psychopath rides with another—and neither harms the other. It is almost as if Wright is saying that the only way to be safe in this society is to be as murderous as the killers.
Chapter Four is set in a tatty motel in Colorado. The owner/manager has dreams of being a screenwriter, and we read at length about this misbegotten project. His wife is having sex with one of the local police in the motel parking lot. His teen-age daughter Aeryl—the two younger daughters are Beryl and Cheryl—dreams of running away with Laszlo to Las Vegas. At the end of the chapter, Aeryl and Laszlo take off with Wiley/Tom in the green Ford Galaxie. On the road, Laszlo has sex with Aeryl in the back seat and offers their host the sight of her naked breasts. Tom says he’s seen breasts before. Laszlo says not like hers.
“Their eyes met in the intimacy of mirror space. Laszlo’s angry blues glittering with the message direct and unmistakable: I, a man younger, stronger, braver than you have this minute, under your quivering old nose hairs, fucked a woman younger, sexier, more desirable than any you can ever hope to win, ergo, you must acknowledge the superiority of my force, the potency of my prick, so said stone eyes from a clearing in the wood.”
Tom and Aeryl abandon Laszlo at a service plaza.
The penultimate chapter is a tour de force as we accompany a moderately successful, 30-something-year-old couple, Amanda and Drake, travel into deepest Borneo with two native guides looking for something authentic, unspoiled, native. They therefore skip the longhouse they could visit upriver, which their guide books point out is nothing but a tourist attraction. They hike into the mountain to find a village where the natives still live in longhouses—filthy, stinking, buggy, uncomfortable, and the chief has an autographed photo of Jack Nicholson (an earlier visitor) in the place of honor between pictures of President Suharto and Jesus.
Virtually all of Wright’s characters are looking for something: excitement, fame, peace, money, adventure, sex, status. They are not satisfied, not content. He seems to be making the case that America has promised all this—fame, money, sex, and more—but hasn’t come through. His characters know that more is out there, other people seem to have it (whatever “it” is), but they don’t know how to get it. Wiley, fed up with his white-bread suburban life, wife, and two children, steals a car and heads west. Amanda and Drake, who seem to represent upper middle class life (they are successful enough to afford their trek), crave unique experiences and are willing to suffer to obtain them. But they are still tourists and still at the mercy of American insanity.
Going Native is an occasionally funny, occasionally bitter, occasionally ugly, always thought-provoking meditation on this American life.
Wally Wood, author of The Girl in the Photo, 2013
[In Borneo, Henry, one of Amanda and Drake’s two Indonesian guides, warn them a storm is coming.] An hour later the dim light grew dinner, the tall shafts of the trees began to move like masts in a high gale, the leafy crown swaying together in banded harmony, the moaning of limbs as wood rubbed against wood in the gathering dark. Henry and Jalong [the other guide] giggled nervously between themselves. “You hear,” Henry explained in embarrassment, “the trees, they are having sex together.” A ragged skirt of black cloud must have swept in low overhead, for down in their shelter it turned to night. Lightning began stabbing at the ground somewhere beyond their sight, the thunder loud in their ears like empty steel drums being rolled down a ramp. Bits of leaf and bark fell in gentle hail upon their roof, where they clung to the poles like desperate sailors as the rain descended abruptly in full force as if a trap door had been sprung and the equivalent of a mountain waterfall crashed down upon their heads. In thirty minutes it was over. No one moved. The forest dripped from every surface, noisily, steadily, on through the night and into the next dawn, when they awoke to swirling curtains of steam issuing from the earth and the chirping of tree frogs, the screeching of birds, the hooting of gibbons. Henry and Jalong were huddled in conference over a small pile of damp sticks, urging on the fire from their Bic lighters —p227