Saturday, June 13, 2015

American Meteor by Norman Lock - Book Review

AmericanMeteor by Norman Lock (Believe Literary Press, 2015, 208 pages, $27.99/10.99) is a picaresque coming of age novel featuring narrator Stephen Moran, a product of mid-nineteenth century Irish lower East Side of New York, as a Western Forest Gump, hitting many of the historical highlights of the westward expansion during and after the Civil War from Manassas to the Little Big Horn. Along the way he meets and is influenced by many of the seminal characters of that era, describing in often flowery, luminous language his experiences as he develops. While described as a “Western” novel, this worthy piece does not strike me as the sort of heroic, shoot-em-up western my reading experience has led me to expect with that designation. Rather, taking a reflective view of the Civil War and the rush to subdue the Indians while creating a continental nation, Lock creates a memorable character who sees it all while providing a shimmering eulogy for the loss of one America in order to create another.

Moran is not much of an actor in his westward trip. Rather, he's an observer, eventually becoming that most detached of observers, a photographer capturing for posterity the events of a westward-bound people. We first see him as an Irish street urchin at the beach in Brooklyn where he observes a wild Walt Whitman proclaiming, to the waves hitting the shore, his love for everything. Moran finds himself in trouble, and sentenced to the Union Army where, because of his youth and small stature, he becomes a bugler, one who sounds the charge and proclaims the loss through his instrument. He's present at Bull Run, trains endlessly in Washington under McClelland, and is wounded in the Wilderness, where he loses an eye under rather unclear circumstances, but a pervasive image thoughout the novel. While in the hospital, he's nursed back to health by Whitman, who gives him a copy of Leaves of Grass, providing him with a wealth of imagery and understanding of American expansiveness which yields him insights throughout the rest of his journey. When Lincoln is assassinated, Stephen is there to play the bugle and Grant awards him with an undeserved Medal of Honor, which lubricates his stature. He's chosen to accompany Lincoln's body back to Springfield, playing taps along the way at each stop, while riding in the funeral car as Lincoln decomposes.

In Springfield, Moran meets photographer William Henry Jackson, who teaches the skills of photography and makes him an apprentice. Traveling west with Jackson, Moran encounters railroad tycoon Thomas Durant, who hires him as a waiter on his private rail car. As he travels west, Moran experiences the destruction of the buffalo herds, the exploitation of Chinese workers (where he meets a Chinese laundryman reminiscent of Lee in John Steinbeck's East of Eden, whose wisdom is masked behind an assumed ignorance and pidgin English), and finally that greatest of all self-glorifying Americans, George Armstrong Custer, who Stephen sees as the destroyer of the West, as well as Crazy Horse, its potential savior. Throughout this evocative novel, Stephen Moran observes, comments, and learns, while never truly participating. His often trenchant, humorous, and insightful commentary on the westward migration and its relationship to American Exceptionalism make up the core of this thought provoking and intriguing book.

Norman Lock

Norman Lock is the award-winning author of novels, short fiction, and poetry, as well as stage, radio, and screen plays. He has won The Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award, The Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and writing fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Aberdeen, New Jersey. (publisher profile)

Norman Lock has created a tightly written episodic journey through a crucial part of American history in American Meteor (Believe Literary Press, 2015, 208 pages, $27.99/10.99). It's literary fiction, filled with allusions, imagery, and scraps of Walt Whitman's poetry, usrf to illustrate and enhance many of protagonist Stephen Moran's adventures. I almost put it down at the beginning, but decided to continue, and am glad I did. Moran's observations and experiences enrich the reader's understanding of the meaning of our move westward to build while destroying. I read American Meteor as an electronic galley on my Kindle app provided by the publisher through Edelweiss. I recommend this book for readers who enjoy literary fiction surrounding our westward migration and post-Civil War period. 

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