A Review of Craig Rodgers’ Drift
By Eric Williams
When reading Craig Rodgers’s forthcoming novel, Drift (Death of Print, 2023), I kept wanting to flip back to the inside cover and consult a map of the late capitalist America he writes about so sharply. Like the imaginary worlds documented at the front of paperback fantasy novels, his surrealist travelogue evokes a deeply buried psychogeography, a cultural/social/subconscious American landscape that captures the frisson of familiar, everyday people and places in contorted, phantasmagoric circumstances. His affinity for tales set in and around the asphalt scars crosshatching the plains serves Rodgers well here. The narrative is anchored to highways that are concrete in senses both literal and figurative – only the road seems real and solid in Rodgers’s writing, while cities and truck stops rise and fall like mirages along their length, hazy fairylands full of strange menace and uncertain encounters.
Drift is the story of Charlie the Bible salesman, a man with a house in the suburbs that he never sees because he spends his time putting miles and miles behind him travelling highways in the company car. The banality and redundancy of his existence is hammered home with every sale – the company has a website where the orders are completed anyway, so why bother to send a salesman? And how often can someone need new Bibles, anyway? Charlie’s alienation is underscored by an encounter with one of his customers, a priest burning boxes of old Bibles out back of the church simply because he’s going to order new ones. Confronted with the ineluctable logic of modern consumerism, Charlie asks the priest why he’s not also burning the cardboard boxes? “I can use the boxes,” he answers.
Later, at a sales convention, Charlie finds himself drawn into the orbit of a bowler-wearing goon, a man he’s encountered on the road before. The goon takes Charlie to an illicit gambling den where, engrossed in a game he doesn’t understand and can’t hope to grasp, Charlie quickly runs through all his money, eventually even betting (and losing) the company car. The poker game is a moment of ego death for Charlie, one that fundamentally changes his fate and puts him on a winding path of theft and violence and freedom, all while still ostensibly on the job selling Bibles across the country.
Eliding the truth by claiming the company car was stolen, Charlie continues along his own personal Via Dolorosa in a rental. The ease with which the car is replaced is striking; it had been more of a home for Charlie than any house ever was, an integral part of his career and life, and yet it is simply and perfunctorily swapped out, a new car slotted into the space of the old one. This reification of the merciless machinery of capitalism, parts and people used up until they wear down and are tossed aside, is like the sound of one hand clapping for Charlie. Through it, he attains a kind of enlightenment. He enters a new phase of life; he continues his cross-country pilgrimage, but now he fleeces the flocks he’d previously served, taking cash directly from the customers with no intention of fulfilling their orders, using the stolen funds to finance his journey into…what? Oblivion?
Here the already loose narrative structure breaks down into a series of feverish vignettes, and the nightmare that is living on the road becomes more and more apparent. Charlie’s travels take him deep into a Boschian landscape peopled with grotesques, all seemingly having stepped across the threshold and into our world from other realities. Some of these figures, like the carnies at the poker game, were glimpsed briefly by Charlie before his transformation, but with the clarity of dream-logic they now return as a strange and portentous caravan, endlessly (and pointlessly, perhaps) travelling. Scenes include Charlie picking up a dead man hitchhiking his way back to his wife; the rental car getting stolen by a pallid, sickly albino who is convinced he’s being punished by God for the simple crime of existing; and a brief encounter with a killer clown that has been terrorizing the countryside. All of these outré, archetypal characters are painted in sinister hues, punctuating Charlie’s descent into Hell. Cars give way to buses, and the final scenes of the book take place aboard an otherworldly train.
The story of Drift unfolds like a tarot reading, and the pleasure of it comes from the logical or emotional connections you as the reader will build and interpret. What does the discussion about time travel in the gas station mean? What does the apocalyptic diary Charlie finds in the glove box of a car he hitches a ride in portend? It’s all incredible fun, and the momentum builds from scene to scene, like a multi-car pileup on the interstate.
Craig Rodgers is the poet laureate of long lonely highways, of cracked concrete and gravelly road shoulders and those bottles of piss truckers throw out their windows. His writing is dreamlike and occultic, but never weighted down with tedious symbolism; you never feel like he’s elbowing you in the ribs while you’re reading, making sure you picked up on this or that allusion or reference. He’s just simply fascinated by unanchored dirtbags being loosed on an unsuspecting world, and Drift is full of nervy, addled, and downright weird characters and situations. But there’s also a sentimental streak; I was reminded of medieval “Lives of the Saints” stories, brutal tales of violence and Grand Guignol horrors that always end in milk and honey. There’s a sense in Drift that through all the suffering and terror and freaky shit, there’re lessons to be learned, or at least endured, and that coming through them to the other side is, ultimately, where you start finding out what it means to be human. It’s Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony filtered through the midnight movie horror classic “Carnival of Souls,” and it’s a blast.
Eric Williams lives on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous Seaway in Austin, TX. His fiction has been published in Cold Signal, Nocturne, Firmament, and King Ludd’s Rag, among other places, and a collection of his Weird Tales inspired short stories, TOADSTONES, is available now from Malarkey Books. He’s on twitter (@Geo_Liminal) for what that’s worth.