Monday, August 13, 2007

Brad Land's Pilgrims Upon the Earth

I just finished former student Brad Land's first novel, Pilgrims Upon the Earth. This one follows by three years his wildly successful memoir, Goat, which we used in fall 2005 as a common text for our freshman classes at Francis Marion University, his alma mater. Students (and critics) raved about that book, and I was proud of the fact that Brad made a start on it as a final project for my Literary Nonfiction class. He went on to UNC-Wilmington, where his MFA was in nonfiction, and the harrowing story that became Goat was his thesis.

From the get-go and to an astonishing extent, Brad had a distinctive but unaffected style. He would say, I know, that this voice, veering between the florid and the clipped, has been honed and tempered by the likes of novelist Cormac McCarthy and poet Jack Gilbert, also affected by the lyric essay as exemplified by John D'Agata plus many others. But Brad's language is distinctive and only occasionally tips over into the precious.

Pilgrims tells what is on the surface a pretty basic story. Terry Webber, whose mother commits suicide shortly after his birth, lives with a sympathetic but ineffective millworker father in South Carolina. Terry is a dopehead and a slacker but is rendered endearing by his off-kilter, sensitive take on the world around him. He falls for Alice Washington, the two embark on a journey to visit her sister, and Alice has a fatal accident. This rocks Terry's world and seems all the more wrenching for the flat, matter-of-fact indiscriminate approach he seems to adopt toward this and other events, both minor and major, in his life. He engages in petty crimes with his mates, gets kicked off the soccer team, intermittently reconnects with his dad, and finally lights out for the territories, in this case Colorado and Alice's sister, the destination they had in mind when it all came apart.

There is an enigmatic sort of redemption or hope or something kindled by the novel's end. But what emerges best of all and keeps the story rolling is Brad's sometimes zany and always inventive language, a diction and kick that reveals an entire world-view, albeit a sometimes jaded, maddeningly passive-aggressive one.

Searching "Brad Land" on the web still gives you a ton of Goat references and only a few for this novel. But presumably that ratio will alter this fall when his book tour kicks off. I could see hordes of young people getting into this one, just as they did Goat, even if the subject matter is not as vivid and immediate.

Reviews of Pilgrims Upon the Earth:

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