“To What End?”: Lorenzo Bartolucci on A Room in Dodge City, Vol. 2: The Blut Branson Era, a novel-in-vignettes by David Leo Rice

Why do you want to be a writer?

It came up casually, over dinner, but I’ll never forget the way David Leo Rice paused (rather uncharacteristically) to consider a question he didn’t seem to have bothered with overmuch on his own—which may be the simplest definition of a vocation, after all. And I’ll never forget the answer he gave, eventually, looking up at the questioner and the whole chattering dining hall behind her, at the other end of the table. “Well,” he said, “because … if I could do something else, I would.”

Rice has found a great deal of other things to do, besides writing, in the decade or so since voicing that thought. He has been an animator, a high school tutor, and a college instructor, and found time to earn a Harvard degree and an MFA from the New School along the way. Meet him, and the conversation will overflow in minutes in an ebullience of wonder and projects—now a workshop, now a reading group, now plans for the start of a writing school. All of which eloquently drives home the point that, when he described his reluctance to “do something else,” it wasn’t hesitance or unwillingness that Rice was trying to express, but a genuine sense of necessity. The necessity that one of his earliest literary models, William Faulkner, pinned down as the root cause of the “busy” life artists, more often than not, find themselves destined for: “An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why.”

But where do these demons come from? And to what end? Such are the stubborn concerns at the heart of The Blut Branson Era, the second installment in Rice’s trilogy A Room in Dodge City—a vertiginous bildungsroman of the American psyche through the various wormholes (literary, mediatic, political, philosophical) that continue to precipitate the twentieth into the twenty-first century and that always, somehow, bring us back (Faulknerian assurances notwithstanding) to the inevitable question: Why?

Why do you want to be a writer?

Well—why do you want to be anything, really?

Why keep busy? What’s left to be done?

If only … the sun would rise in the morning over a slightly different world—or if a slightly different sun would rise—some fruition would surely be possible. Some means of seeing far enough inside myself, or all the way beyond myself, such that I would no longer waste my days and years in the halfhearted attempt to work for someone else, but would rather come at last fully into my own, and the embryos that have incubated for so long inside me would hatch, and the whole world would know what they are.

Welcome to the world of the Drifter, the nameless narrator who in the first volume of Rice’s trilogy makes his arrival in Dodge City, spiraling rapidly down a vortex of half-hallucinatory, half-epiphanic absurdity. It is soon clear, in fact, that this transient and seemingly aimless figure has actually come to seek something across the boundless Midwestern expanses, where what begins to unfold is a geography—no less—of his own life. A path, as he says, westward and inward to some decisive moment of “fruition,” tuning the din of the demons, at last, to the full pitch (you guessed it) of a vocation.

A Room in Dodge City, Vol. 2: The Blut Branson Era proceeds to home in on the nature of this vocation, which is not that of a writer (guess again) but of a moviemaker. And it’s worth spending a word on the degree of psychological penetration that the book achieves by dint of this particular setup. Depending on what you’ve read (Woolf, Proust, Mann, Atwood—you name your example) few tricks may impress you less, admittedly, than someone masquerading as an artist to plumb the depths of his own literary inspiration. The thing is that the mask, in this case, certainly dissimulates, but also adheres tightly—very tightly—to the features donning it for us on the page. As omnivorous (read: compulsive) a cinephile as he is a reader, Rice weaves the creative quest of his narrator through a lineage of intimate influences (Fellini, Cronenberg, Lynch, Ki-Duk) that run like so many stitches along the Frankensteinian junction of art and life; a junction this novel does next to nothing to hide or smooth over, and unlike almost anything you may have read before, virtually everything at its disposal to expose and follow through to its monstrous—yet all too logical—conclusion.

This conclusion takes the form of “a novel-in-vignettes,” as the book’s cover announces. And if you’re unsure what exactly “vignette” is supposed to mean here, worry not. The Drifter himself only begins to wrap his head around the idea (naturally in cinematic terms) about a fourth of the way through:

“Yeah, but why even call it a Movie if it isn’t one?”

In response to this, a stranger comes onscreen and puts forth that what’s really important now is not B-Movies at all, but what he calls B-Moves, which are instances of B-Movie behavior divorced from the strictures of cinema, brought all the way into real life, “where the rest of us are anyway.”

Remember the last time you came across an empty car and wondered (even turned to look, maybe) about walking back, checking it out; or when that soft, unplaceable creak crept down the stairs, and you almost stood from the couch to see what it might be. Now consider how many B-movies sparked off from just such a moment: imagining what might happen if someone did get too close to the car (Cop Car, say) or upstairs (Silent House). Or is it the other way around, perhaps, and once we’ve seen the movies we can’t (really can’t) help but linger in their eerie, stillborn glow? That is the source of Rice’s vignettes: the moment—the glitch—when things stiffen and all their weirdness, their creeping nonsense, seems just about to flash into view—to be forgotten a moment later, as we drive off or turn away from the staircase, back to the TV screen.

What would happen, then, if we were to embrace such moments? If, instead of severing it, we were to let the weirdness twirl its vine “all the way into real life”? And reality, as we experience it, were to be suddenly propelled forward, inward, deeper and deeper into that vortex of nonsense it keeps skirting around at every turn? Chances are we’d end up somewhere not too different from Dodge City, where the line between life and the Drifter’s encroaching visions tapers off, one B-Move at a time, and eventually dissolves. Which is precisely the kind of place Rice’s novel endeavors to make room for in our imagination, as well as the upshot of his meditation on the unabating dilemma of art’s whys and wherefores.

Because we are never quite done—are we, writers and readers—with that odd ambition (again, call it a vocation) to raise fiction’s mirror to this life “where the rest of us are anyway,” and see if it has anything worthwhile to show us. It is to that end, ultimately, that Rice bets on the glitches—absurd, relentless sparks of a vision which he pursues neither in the form of a B-movie, nor, strictly speaking, of a story, but of a quest (an epic, even) after all the nonsense and the necessity of life itself. And the coherence of such a vision, so thoroughly internalized as to yield the structuring principle of an unprecedented narrative procedure, may prove the most urgent and compelling reason, in the final analysis, to read this book:

I collapse on one of the stone staircases, and wake up, if I’d been sleeping, or fall asleep, if I’d been awake. Either way, the feed is cut. The scene is over.

The slightly different world (or the slightly different sun) of each new vignette the Drifter steps through will take you exactly that far—each time right up to the point where the waking, the dreaming, or whatever else you may want to call it, must come to an end. What other end do you think you are keeping so busy for after all—you will almost hear Rice asking you—reading, writing, making movies, or whatever else it is you are doing? And it’s less of a question than an exhortation, really, to keep doing it. Because you still have the whole, monstrous geography of your own life—no less—to pin down and get through.

A Room in Dodge City, Vol. 2: The Blut Branson Era, by David Leo Rice. Boulder, Colorado: Alternating Current Press, January 2021. 202 pages. $16.99, paper.

Lorenzo Bartolucci is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Stanford University.

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