Rebel: The Last American Novel; by T.L. Davis; 12 Round Publishing, Montrose, Colo., 275 pages, trade paperback.
Life never affords enough comfort or security to youth that they can pass through their nonage without some acquaintance with the sterner side of human existence. For some, that acquaintance can come even in the tenderest of years. But for anyone, even the sheltered and mostly grown, life shows its rougher edges soon enough. And so by our teens we are all awakened to the insensitivities that life can visit upon us. How we respond to that awakening defines our character.
“You’re a tough one, aren’t you?”
“No,” Nick answered.
“All you kids are tough.”
“You got to be tough,” Nick said.
“That’s what I said.”
The Nick Adams figure of Hemingway’s early short fiction is a character study in American youth coming of age in a world that is amply ready to test them. Sometimes the tests are grim. Sometimes they are sobering. Or the tests can be interludes of uncertainty or banality or boredom or unfairness or loneliness.
In Rebel: The Last American Novel, by T.L. Davis, the story follows the ups and downs—and tests—of Lane Daniels, a protagonist who, in the prototypical mold of Nick Adams, finds himself in an unsettled standoff with life. Maybe here there is a tincture of Holden Caulfield as well. Or Huck Finn. Or Harvey Cheyne.
A disaffected teen, Daniels breaks from his family, friends, and school to venture into the world in a quest to assert his own self-sufficiency and independence—qualities he likens to freedom. Set in the 1970s, in northern Colorado and parts thereabout, Rebel tracks Daniels’ trajectory, beginning with his disillusionment with school, continuing through his conflict with authorities, following his peregrinations in Colorado and Kansas, and culminating with his reuniting with friends and family, while yet on the verge of a fresh goodbye. In the end, Daniels, who typifies his region’s lingering frontier ethic, seems to strike what might be thought of as a frontiersman’s standoff with civilization. We get the sense that he will live in it, but not fully be of it.
Such could be said for much of the American West, yet today. Rebel could be viewed as an extended metaphor for the West, a once-hallowed hinterland now wrenched headlong into contemporary times, dismissed as irrelevant, treated as passe’, ignored as “flyover country,” and, worst of all, derided for values that are now deemed archaic.
The book begins with a line that is evocative of Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” but with Longs Peak standing in as the landmark that will, like Kilimanjaro, brood over its author’s narrative, just as the past of the American West broods over a present that never lives up to that glorious past.
Daniels’ family history is shared as prologue for the tale, and Daniels himself is introduced as a product and a progeny of that family’s deep regional roots. Change doesn’t come easily to the West, nor does conformity, and so we soon are confronted with Daniels’ conflicts, both internal and external. Here is what he thinks of school:
“It was an atmosphere designed to stifle and smother freedom. It was prison: dehumanizing, degrading and every minute controlled by a strict schedule. Was it my ancestry of pioneers and individualists or the history of the area populated by the same demand for freedom that made me jealous of my time and how it was spent?” (p. 13)
Another year into his development, he is, if anything, more entrenched in his outlook:
“I love to work, especially outside, away from offices and halls. I’ve had enough of that already and it feels like prison. Going to college would only ensure that I remained there for the rest of my life, chained to a desk, pale from fluorescent lights, trapped by happy-speak to avoid resentment and anger from other inmates of that insane future.” (p. 160)
This book is more than just another exploration of teenage angst. Daniels is in the grip of it, yes, but his struggle is more than just the typical coming-of-age saga. It’s also in some ways about us. On another level, as a statement of alienation and reaction against the machinery of modern life, the attitudes of Lane Daniels are oddly evocative of the kind of anarchy embodied in a figure such as Tyler Durden, of Fight Club, though on a milder scale of course. Meanwhile, while it is fairly easy for us to grasp what Daniels is against, it is harder to grasp what he is for. Yet Davis pulls off the nifty conceit of getting us to identify with, even sympathize with, this brash, self-absorbed, stoic, sometimes truculent young man.
Because he chooses a late-teens protagonist, and because the story sticks with teenage life dynamics, politics are never overt. Yet, in the end, the book is more political than it lets on. There are undercurrents. Its theme proves to be timely. We live in tumultuous times. All that the nascent 2020s have done is tear off the veneer that covered the sentiments that have boiled beneath.
Too few people today grasp the real political stakes. Too few understand how the political world divides. It’s a case of the collective versus the individual, men versus the man, the state versus the citizen, society versus privacy. I think Davis understands the stakes and that that’s what he’s writing about. Consider these passages:
“I didn’t have time to ask when I got hired, I assumed we would be paid weekly, so I could stay in my car for a week, easy. With the thought that I would tough it out, I was met with a sudden realization that I had finally achieved my ultimate goal of freedom, complete and whole as at no other time in my life. In my poverty, with no place to live other than my car I inhaled the greatest and most valuable air, free air, as valuable as oxygen itself to a man who is being held down and smothered by a dominating and controlling society. The car became a world unto itself, supportive and protective in many ways, but also mobile, free to leave and to return, move from one place of inhospitality to another of gentle welcome, flowing as the Marmaton River.” (p. 187)
And, even more pointedly, there is this passage where the narrator, Daniels, rejects “the soul-sucking experience of being indoctrinated”:
“‘You don’t want that,’ I said, knowing that had I not spent time with Chrissy and Alice in the cafe, that I would not have my opinions galvanized, would not have even yet consolidated the ideas that I had concerning school and teachers, that it would be some cloudy, half-formed opinions of school, rather than the teachers themselves, the curriculum and the means of delivering groupthink to the rest of us, using a form of democracy as a bludgeon that I had often recognized, but hadn’t been able to distill as the reason I hated school. I thought it was just a waste of time, but I had come to recognize that I detested being forced to accept the social messaging that was being inserted into every class. It was much more pronounced in oral communications than any other class and why I could not tolerate the message much more than the insult of wasting my time.” (p. 257)
Davis’s first-person narrative moves along compellingly and keeps a reader on the hook. The dialogue is crisp, the exposition is efficient, and the story itself commands attention.
And the book is authentic. I grew up in the world Davis describes. He knows this world his characters inhabit. And so the book has this virtue also: it defines a subculture that otherwise is invisible to much of society.
In the end, this book is about people. And about the conflict between their better natures and the conformity that a consumer-driven, high-tech, lever-pulling world would impose on them. The better natures of American society, in my opinion and I would think in the author’s opinion also, are expressed in the individualistic traits wrought by the frontier. It is these traits that are in the crucible here. Will they survive? That’s a question that awaits more exploration. But T.L. Davis has moved the discussion forward for the time being.
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