Journeyman by Marc Bojanowski
Granta, 5 May 2016
*My copy provided by the publisher for review.
Just a year ago the look, feel and blurb for this book would have sent me running for Bailey's Prize hill and the safety of my comfort zone post-haste. A carpenter has a dark night of the quietly masculine soul in mid-2000s California against the back drop of war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Take note of how I'm trying to extend my reading repetoire by trusting to the judgement of Granta and ploughing on in. As brave ventures go, this one turned out surprisingly well. Journeyman so beguiled me in the first third with its textured landscapes and subtle handling of its protagonist that I swallowed the frenzied dialogue and fireworks of the rest without too much trouble. Arriving finally at the redemptive ending I was glad to have been along for the ride. On the one hand Bojanowski is a clever and serious writer, careful to load and layer every word of his second novel; Eleanor is right to call him a writer of themes. Peel the plot off the book and it's all cogs and wheels, ticking over in the harmonious production of Meaning with a capital M. At the same time Journeyman is an oddly sweet and romantic piece, with a crooked-smile of a love story running through it and a protagonist straight out of a rom-com. It's unlikely: imagine if Nicholas Sparks and Bret Easton Ellis did a team up.
Nolan Jackson is a wanderer, a serial abandoner of family, friends and women. As a journeyman carpenter he flits from construction site to construction site, building identikit tract homes in Nevada, California, Oregon, New Mexico, never staying long enough to make or keep long term relationships. At the first sign of discomfort or complication he hitches his Airstream trailer, his home for the last thirteen years, and drives off into the dust. There is always work down the road for a skilled man who keeps to himself. When he witnesses a terrible accident at his most recent job in Las Vegas he drops his new girlfriend Linda and flees back to California, first for a brief visit to his mother and then a courtesy call on his older brother Chance. He is running from a niggling sense of helplesness, "the feeling he despises the most", folling himself into believing that he has everything he needs in the confines of his mobile world.
But then he is the victim of a freak accident of his own. A car jumps the barrier of a bridge and falls onto his parked truck and trailer. The wreck ignites and everything goes up in flames, his crafted and salvaged belongings along with his life savings in a tin can and his tools. His life is reset, wiped clean, and he is forced back on the charity of his brother and a couch in his garage. The omniscient narrator is unequivocal about what his happened to him: "for nearly half his life Nolan's worked to fashion order in the world. He's cut and joined rock, metal, plastic, wire and wood, and still mastery eludes him. Still it wills away and what he works something into, change and time undo elegantly and infinitely, beyond his ken of patience and perception, everything new commencing towards unravel and decay." Left with nothing but the skill of his labour Nolan is given the rare opportunity to remake his life into something new and unlooked for.
The setting and detail of the novel is teeth-achingly modern. Bojanowski is fixated with the paraphanalia of 21st century life - wires and data, commercialisation and tourism, the Disneyfication of the past - and how they impact on the contemporary psyche. The fascination is shared by Chance, Nolan's troubled alcoholic brother. A writer himself, Chance has changed his name to Cosmo and spends his days elaborating grand conspiracy theories in Burnridge, a heritage town eaten up by its own manufactured self image. He is working on a magnum opus about a forgotten Russian naval battle that he imagines is the progenitor of the great changes of the 20th century, envisioning a maddening web of connectivity that both illuminates and binds the present moment, "the macrocosmic loom, a real nightmare web of knowing." He is obsessed with the work of a local arsonist, who he imagines is motivated to burn down second homes and sabotage a visiting film crew out of a desire to expose the hypocrisy and parody of the present moment.
By contrast Nolan is a man out of time, a craftsman whose identity as a journeyman is as old as the Middle Ages and whose vision of the world stretches into deep time. Stopping in Death Valley on his way home to California he surveys the view with a geological imagination:
"Before him, horizontal bands of tawny and red run almost perpendicular to slender upthrusts of brown and black. Nolan traces rilles and gullies with his eyes, follows the flow down deep gulches and along distant waterlines of an ancient lake. To the north, Manly Beacon, shaped by desert downpours. A range of consistencies set before him, stages and methods of erosion. Someplace in the gradual upheaval and sink, fossilized animal tracks and grasses and reeds that once swayed beneath the same sun."
He disavows the internet or mobile phones. He has no virtual life and instead focuses on the work of his hands in building, cooking and gardening. He is connected to people and places not by data but by the things that he has made, and by the culture of cowboy masculinity that he works hard to cultivate. He armours himself with a Stetson and a pair of boots, a stoic taciturn demeanour and a quiet competance like a creature out of myth. Juxtaposed against the realities of California in 2007, and of the Iraq war, it would be easy to dismiss Nolan's manufactured sense of self as ridiculous. We are expressly instructed not to: "his shadow cast before him, lean and tall and jean-jacketed and wearing his white Western hat. We maintain narratives, however false, to survive. Cosmo does. You do. Grant him his lies as he grants you yours." The direct authorial intrusion leaves no room for mistake: Nolan is to be taken seriously.
Journeyman is interested in what it means for a man to be his own master, to live life according to his values and beliefs. Through Nolan and Chance (and, second hand, the experiences of their Vietnam veteran father) Bojanowski explores the paradox of individualism in every day life. On the surface of things both men are entirely independent. Nolan has made an art of charting a course that suits him alone, while Chance - divorced, distant from his mother and brother - can live his life exactly as he pleases. Both have strong and divergent views about what being a man in the world should mean, about what a good life and civilisation looks like. Yet they are trapped into the identities they have chosen for themselves - loner cowboy; dogged hack journalist - unwittingly participating in the constriction of their actions, spokes in the great turning wheel of capitalist politics. Both have a sneaking suspicion that they have missed out on something meaningful, in this case the cause of the war against terror. Nolan tells his mother: "I feel like sometimes the one thing I could have done in my life to make a difference came and went... To fight for something like that, yeah. Some men feel that." The brothers respond to that loss in ways that makes most sense to them. For Chance this means raging against the dissolution of modern America and the people he feels most represent it; for Nolan it means retreating to the safety of his carefully crafted persona.
It's easy for state of the nation books to overdo the despair and hypocrisy of modern life for me; if I look too closely at the extremes of the way we live now, I start to feel greasy and unpleasant. In this case Nolan's character saves the day, with its essential romantic qualities. You can't help but feel warmth for a man who doesn't mind riding a woman's pink bike to work on a building site, makes himself elaborate salads, doesn't curse, has a dry sense of humour and sorts nails into neat piles to calm his mind. He wants to love and be loved, a builder not a destroyer. By the time the credits roll the soul of Journeyman seems to belong to Sparks rather than Easton Ellis, and the world isn't without hope.