Winter Park, by Graham Guest. Atmosphere Press, March 2016. 272 pages. $14.95, paper.
Winter Park opens on an airplane flown by a pilot who says things like “scone be bumpy” and a main character who, while tossing back a couple of “G&T’s,” notes proudly to the reader that he is a philosopher. It’s an entry that gives us several clues about what kind of book is awaiting: we are en route to or from somewhere in the American South, and it’s going to be a rather distorting experience.
Guest is an author whose background suggests he is prone to questioning all sorts of forms of logic. With graduate degrees not only in literature and writing, but also in philosophy and law, it’s not surprising to find the characters in this debut novel engaged in fundamental questions about language and ideas. But with a cast of characters with names and personalities straight out of a Southwestern mythos and a Texan drawl to boot, it’s an engagement that trends as much toward a satirizing of cultural and linguistic tropes as it does to philosophical inquiry.
After landing in Colorado and being released from police custody (the philosopher’s drunken antics having caused concern among the flight attendants), the novel moves quickly into a very alcohol- and drug-saturated mountain ski resort where Eric Swanson—the philosopher—proceeds on a reunion of sorts with a group of ski-bums of which he was once a member. But after a drug-fueled, murderous turn of events, the story shifts suddenly into an entirely different realm, and we find ourselves at a rehabilitation work-camp in Texas named, with obvious stereotype, “The Dude Ranch,” where Swanson—apparently having suffered a neurological breakdown after the grim events closing Part I, is now a satirical, metaphilosophizing paraplegic. He has been given a fake name for use at the ranch (“Wayne Floyd”) and pared with an epileptic dubbed “Harris Birdsong,” who, although possessing the social IQ of a child, has memorized an entire dictionary and narrates his thoughts in a manic (but surprisingly reasonable) stream of consciousness.
It’s the sort of setup that David Foster Wallace, if somehow mixed with William Faulkner and Willard Quine, spiked with a dram of Franz Kafka, might have concocted. The camp is run by a slew of oddball authority figures with names parodying the sobriquets of the southwestern legend: The Warden, Rudy Dude, Big Dave, Doc Holliday, Nurse Oakley, and Chip Geener. The Warden lives out of sight, but commands psychological and bureaucratic privilege within the camp—an apparent nod to Faulkner’s Rose for Emily—and the story is varicose with the dark comedy of characters attempting to navigate an authority structure maintained not so much by power or classical concepts of justice, but rather by an implicit assumption among the handicapped workhands that those in authority have access to a more effective legal and philosophical logic than they do. But what it is that the workhands are trying to atone for and what it is they need to be doing in order to be “doing well” are never really disclosed.
It’s a scenario that Franz Kafka—though not exactly a Texan philosopher—would have appreciated, and it’s the kind of absurdism that is well documented, for example, in police states where confusion and anxiety are tools of power. But this Dude Ranch isn’t a state prison, and as its final scenes make clear, the true imprisonment its characters face may not be a strictly institutional one, but rather a human one due to tendencies of violence, racism, and the way language and its definitions are entrenched by longstanding cultural pathologies.
Winter Park presents a haunted simulacrum of philosophical inquiry and the southern mythos. Its characters are driven toward incessant inquiry into language and thought, authority, and illness. Although Floyd and Birdsong are both severely handicapped individuals and have clearly found themselves mixed up in a world they struggle to grasp, their confusions resonate as deeply human, and the many questions this novel asks through them demand serious attention.
Christopher Lura works in Publications at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Previously he was an acquisitions editor at University of California Press and the editor of Paul Revere’s Horse, a journal of literature and translation in San Francisco.