David Leo Rice’s A Room in Dodge City, Vol. 2: The Blut Branson Era is the second book in a trilogy about a nameless protagonist, who arrives in Dodge City, a town which is quintessentially American in the way in which it embodies both the realization of the great dream and its contrapasso, having to endure watching a replay of its perversion ad nauseam. A paradox that defines the everyday experience in America today.
A key aspect of the series, of which two volumes have released so far is its strangeness, contributed to a large extent by the way David Leo Rice handles spaces. The books move through what the French anthropologist Marc Augé defines as non-places: Motels, parking lots, cemeteries, gas stations – invisible places that bring together the outcasts, the drifters who have escaped the normal life of consumption and subordination, to silently rebel in the shadows. These are places where, to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there.” It is here that the writer places his protagonist, a drifter, whose name and past are unknown. The vacuum sucked me in. Thrown in there, I struggled alongside the drifter to make sense of everything around, to parse through the actual and the imagined, to find the real.
Rice, who is well traveled, and who spent his formative years studying Medieval Mysticism at Harvard, shines in his ability to blend the landscapes of the town with those of the dreams and drug-induced fugues of the protagonist, creating a psychogeography that the readers are flung into. On more than one occasion, I found myself discovering an aspect of the protagonist’s self and the town at the same time, not caring which of the two was primary. It is this experience of finding the real in the most unreal of places that gives the books their uncanny appeal.
The first volume in the trilogy deals with the drifter making sense of the town as an outsider, determined not to blend in. The second, published earlier this year, deals with the inevitable and involuntary experience of finding purpose within a town one has spent more time in than they should have. By focusing on the non-places within this town, through the eyes of his nameless protagonist, Rice is able to dive into a deep examination of the ways in which the spaces we inhabit take over and become us, just as we project our psyche onto them. The books at times transcend the sense of self and place, entering a mystical paradigm, beyond both the religious and the perverse.
Vol. 2 tackles the core struggle between the real and the mystical by contrasting television with movies. Having lived through 2020, we are all familiar with the transition TV has made from being a representation of the truth – a second order reality – to the truth itself. In the most American way possible, things are now real only when they happen on the TV. This farcical relationship with reality, where the television acts as an intermediary, validating all our experiences, is casually presented in the book with no judgement whatsoever: “…but now the question of whether they’re actors reprising their old roles, or Dodge City citizens caught in the act of living there, is hard to answer.” This indifferent representation, sustained all through the book, had a numbing effect on me. An unnamed but omnipresent eeriness, deftly layered within the pages: “My own face, reflected in the glass of the screen, seems, at the same time to be coming from within the shot…”
Up against this is the world of film – a medium that triumphs with a single story and a finite timeline in opposition to the all-stories-at-once assault on the TV screen, where everything is current and everything is urgent. A film in comparison, disconnected from the now, feels unhurried. It makes no claims on time that extends beyond the experience of its watching, allowing for silence and contemplation. What is more genuine, the leaps of imagination in the unreal realms of the subconscious, or the ever-present, ever-awake reality on the screens of televisions? As the protagonist ventures forth to make his own movie, he is pushed to the fringes of the town. His search takes him beyond everyday reality, into the rarer realms of imagination and myth. As he travels across the periphery geographically, scouting for location, sets, and actors, we are offered glimpses into the repressed and undiscovered portions of his psyche. In these places that the everyday doesn’t touch, he goes in search of his mystical core. As bodies decay, identities fade, and towns get consumed by television, one thing soars high – the drifter’s unadulterated love for the film.
This novel can mean different things to its readers. To me it was the story of a man fighting his idols as he would fight his demons, to find his true voice, devoid of their influence. A triumph of human imagination over reality. The beauty of the book is in its openness, as Rice resists the urge to pin anything down. An urge that I have fallen prey to in my review. I have read other reviews and interviews and have been amazed at the things that people have taken back.
Spirals are omnipresent in these books. The drifter embarks on journeys, always returning to the place he started, but changed in some way. This micro journey seems to be playing out in the macro narrative as well. If the first book was his arrival, the second his assimilation, I am curious to see how Rice stages the third, due out next year, which I expect will be his departure. Wherever he goes from here, he will carry Dodge City within him, a place that I have experienced either as the fake veneer on the television screen, or as the uncanny non-places in the protagonist’s journeys, which makes me wonder, what is the real Dodge City that he will carry within him as he departs?
Avinash Rajendran is a writer and engineer from India living in Jersey City. He graduated from The New School with an MFA in Fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brooklyn Rail, Brooklyn Magazine and Heavy Feather. His interests gather around horror, the transcendental, and the uncanny. Find him on Twitter @avinashrajendr.
A Room in Dodge City Volume 2
by David Leo Rice
Alternating Current Press; 202 p.