Convenience Killing

John Sutherland

  • What’s Wrong with America by Scott Bradfield
    Picador, 196 pp, £14.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 330 32249 4
  • The History of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield
    Picador, 196 pp, £5.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 330 33412 3
  • Greetings from Earth by Scott Bradfield
    Picador, 296 pp, £5.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 330 32252 4

Scott Bradfield is a campus novelist. Still just under forty, he taught for five years at the University of California at Irvine while getting his PhD in American literature. He then took a job at a worthy but less prestigious school – Storrs University in Connecticut, where he now teaches English. While earning his degree and his bread in the classroom, Bradfield has, over the last ten years, put together an impressive corpus of fiction comprising two novels and a collection of short stories. All his long and short fiction is set in California, the quintessential place: ‘California is America squared,’ one of his characters says. ‘It’s the place where you go to find more America than you ever thought possible.’ The more astringent New England milieu seems not yet to have penetrated into Bradfield’s fiction.

Bradfield’s thoroughly American theme is broken families – broken, that is, Menendez-style. Convenience killing comes up everywhere in his fiction. One of his short stories, ‘The Darling’, is about a pretty young thing whom no man can resist. Her father is one such and has his incestuous brains splattered over the kitchen table with his own Walther-P38 (it ‘virtually ruined the checkered tablecloth’, the narrative primly notes). Dolores then goes upstate to San Francisco – many murders are unsolved in California – where she moves in with an amiable health freak called Daniel. But Daniel is mean to Dolores, and one day when he comes in from his run she gives him his tall, cold protein shake with a little extra ingredient: ‘it contained non-pasteurised whole milk, two fertile eggs, eight ounces of liquid protein, wheat germ, vitamin B complex and B12 and three heaped tablespoons of blue crystal Drano.’ Daniel dies making gurgling noises like bad plumbing; rather appropriate in the circumstances. And so Dolores goes on, slashing the throat of a loved one with a kitchen knife, shooting the man who eventually marries her and burying him in the garden with the similarly disposed of family pooch in his arms.

Murder is what close family members routinely do to each other in Bradfield’s California. In The History of Luminous Motion, a seven-year-old takes a car tool-kit and dismembers his mom’s lover, and having got away with that (detection rates are appalling in these novels), takes his snub-nosed pliers to his own good-natured father, who has misguidedly returned to unite the family. The child’s wholly creditable desire is to cocoon with his mother and return to the vagrant freeway life they previously enjoyed in cheap motels and neon bars (‘luminous motion’). For him as for Dolores, things seem in the end to turn out rather well. Killing, as Lyle Menendez might well argue, is the best kind of family therapy.

In What’s Wrong with America, a grandmother – Emma Delany O’Hallahan – blasts the head off her spouse with a 12-gauge shotgun so that she can bond again with her estranged family, most of whom have been recruited by cults. The novel takes the form of a long journal-letter to her ‘Dear Kids, Grand-kids, In-Laws, Cousins, Assorted Genetic Riff-raff and so on’. Among other good things, familial homicide offers Pentecostal liberations. In The History of Luminous Motion the young hero would seem to be clinically autistic. But desire for his remote (because always drunk) mom and murderous feelings for his dad give him the gift of tongues. Contemplating the dismantling of his luckless parent’s living anatomy this seven-year-old junior high school drop-out is given such lines as:

I’ll find thick complex networks of lymph and artery and tissue there. Fatty deposits, moist and cellular, like the eggs of fish or amphibians. The hard moist marrow filled with yellow matter. Renal ducts and spongy scoops of liver. The hard muscled heart. The body’s stringy muscles knitting ribs and shoulders and stomach. Bones articulated with tendons, cartilage, gristle. Bones articulated with other bones.

It is true that Phillip has picked up the odd nursing manual in the motels where he and his mother overnighted during their luminous motion phase but this power over language beats anything that even Stephen King’s supernaturally endowed kids can do. Telekinesis is nothing compared to ‘renal ducts and spongy scoops of liver’. At this rate, Phillip should win the Nobel Prize for literature at 12 and still have six years to wait before he can be legally executed under Californian law.

Emma, the narrator of What’s Wrong with America, is quaintly garrulous rather than eloquent. She never breaks out of the prefabricated language of TV commercials and self-help manuals that has surrounded her all her life. Her dead husband Marvin is, in her words, ‘permanently defunct in the living department’. The effect of removing Marvin from the living department and disposing of his remains in the gardening department is that of uncorking a gaseous talkativeness stoppered for fifty years. For all their marriage her husband has bullied Emma into silence, submission and nervous foolishness. On the basis of his appearances in the narrative (which are all posthumous and visionary) Marvin is unlike other victims in Bradfield’s fiction in that he gets what’s coming to him. For Emma, what’s wrong with America is (hilariously): ‘Not enough gun control.’ For Marvin – a John Bircher and addict of Rush Limbaugh slob conservatism – what’s wrong with America is ‘coloureds and hispanics’ (the Jews he can live with, since ‘they only sell drugs and prostitutes in the coloured districts’). Marvin built the best fall-out shelter in the block in the Sixties, assembled a home arsenal (including some impressive high explosives which Emma does creative things with) in the Seventies, and in the Eighties favoured nuking ‘the communistical trouble makers jigaboos and diaper-heads’. He is a paid-up member of the Church of Immaculate Reason (thinly-veiled version of the Church of Scientology). All in all, Marvin is what is wrong with America squared.

Freed from Marvin, Emma reads junk fiction and binges on junk food. She buys a leotard and does TV jazzercise. She has an affair with a manager at the local (and financially shaky) Savings and Loans and fools around with her Colt. 357. She writes lists of self-improving things to do and ‘amends’ letters to her children. Alas, she has made her move too late in life. She declares at the outset that she blasted her spouse, ‘being of very sound mind and generally sound body’. But it emerges over the next few months that emancipation has coincided with the onset of senile dementia – a mental deterioration not helped by a diet of brandy, valium and too many Kit Kats. As her neurones backfire and splutter, Emma becomes unstuck in reality. Marvin (smelling of mulch and in his later appearances festooned with worms) returns to berate her as he did in life – an addle-pated, big-butted moron. Like her namesake, Emma discovers in widowhood the platitudes of marriage. Unlike Madame Bovary, she goes down fighting. She uses the pick of his own impressive gun collection to blast at Marvin’s corpse in its shallow grave and takes pot shots when it returns to make itself turkey and cheese sandwiches from the refrigerator and leaves the door open (‘his most annoying habit’). She buys a stout garden stake from the local hardware store, and drives it through the place where his heart should be.

Even in California these noisy do-it-yourself exorcisms are unusual. Neighbourhood Watch does its duty and an LAPD man calls to see if there is a problem. Over chocolate cake and coffee the nice Officer Rodrigues complains of racism in the force, and takes a shine to nice Mrs O’Hallahan. When a particularly nosy neighbour asks too many questions Mrs Stansfield joins Marvin in the garden. It does not simplify things in the home. She, too, comes back from the bourn to nag about how cold and wet it is underground and to make snide remarks about Emma’s deteriorating standards of household sanitation. Not only that, she irritates the hell out of Marvin, requiring yet more gun play. It all works up to a ‘comedy of death’ climax to rival that of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a novel which has clearly exercised its influence on Bradfield.

It is a feature of his homicidal protagonists that they all seem to be plausible recruits for his English and World Literature classes. Dolores commits some very significant murders after reading The Alexandria Quartet and almost (but not quite) sublimates her homicidal instincts during her ‘Russian novel phase’. Before decaying brain cells reduce her to Judith Krantz Emma immerses herself in David Copperfield. The novel, as she informs her grandchildren and assorted genetic riff-raff,

is loosely based on the author’s personal experiences working in a blacking factory and living in a debtor’s prison when he was little, which is something I know about on account of this very nice introduction to the book by a professor from Harvard University. Though not knowing what either a blacking factory or a debtor’s prison are (and not being able to find either of them defined in my American Heritage Dictionary), I seem to be enjoying the book anyway. I particularly like David Copperfield’s wacky Aunt Betsey Trotwood, who saves David from the deadly Murdstones and hates getting donkeys on her lawn.

All Bradfield’s long fiction to date is written, like Copperfield, in the autobiographical form. One could make something of the Dickensian connection but the narrative which is clearly the ur-text for What’s Wrong with America and The History of Luminous Motion (and for works that would seem to be as far removed from Bradfield’s comedies as American Psycho) is The Catcher in the Rye. There is a thesis to be written on the penetration of the American psyche by Holden Caulfield’s interior monologue as a consequence of the book’s being (after the Declaration of Independence) the most consistently prescribed text in American high school literature classes.

One of the most disconcerting tricks in Bradfield’s writing is his collapsing of the usual notions of age-related behaviour. How old, for instance, would you say this toper was?

I awoke every morning with a terrific hangover, parched and aching. Usually I smoked a little grass and took some Tylenol just to get me started. I watched daytime television in my room ... I drank Jack Daniel’s and Wild Turkey, Stolichnaya and Kamchatka, Southern Comfort and Jim Beam, Gallo and tawny port, Coors and Bud.

The answer is just turning eight. Emma in What’s Wrong with America spends torrid nights of love with her savings-and-loan manager (who, she discovers, knocked off his wife when she got crippled) and discovers that ‘bad love is better than no love at all.’ Unlike ‘Marvin the hog’, Mr Sullivan takes his time and touches her all over. And how old is this sexually awakened woman? Sixty-nine. It is not impossible; any more than it is impossible that a seven-year-old might knock back Stolichnaya in the morning. It is arguable that Bradfield intends some comment on California, but it seems more likely that unsettling and amusing his readers is what he really has in mind.