Book Report: Pilgrims Upon the Earth

Though Publisher’s Weekly describes it as a “glum first novel, a plodding study of teenage angst,” Brad Land‘s sophomore effort, Pilgrims Upon the Earth is garnering rave reviews among readers.

“The language and vision are genuine, original, poetic, heartbreaking,” writes one. And there’s truth to the sentiment. The spare, dreamy prose is written in genre-busting sentences like, “November they ditched for a pool hall close to noon.” The book is a slow reveal, paced by copious white space, the occasional arty half-page chapter and tense, bitten dialog freed from the constraints of quotes.

But, like Land’s debut, Goat: A Memoir, Pilgrims is dark, heavy and emotionally oppressive. It starts low, with a punch to the gut, and spirals down from there. If the rule of fiction is to allow the reader to experience, vicariously, a character’s ability to change, grow, learn from his mistakes and emerged renewed, the Carrboro, N.C.-based author is breaking that mold. While it can be argued that such work is important, that doesn’t make the reading any more fun.

I thought the same thing when I reviewed Goat in 2004, but the author — then just out of grad school (his memoir was actually his thesis in his MFA program) — pointed out that giving readers a grand observation is “kind of bulls**t.” And he had a point. After all, when a writer in his early twenties sets out to crack some deep truth, who could blame readers for responding with a snort of disbelief? Better to simply the tell the tale and leave the epiphanies for later in life.

The fact that Goat accomplished best-seller status means someone out there — lots of someones -— agreed.

But will Pilgrims also enjoy the same chart-topping success? Hard to say. It does seem that, perhaps unwittingly, Land is giving credence to a previously largely underground movement of bleak, angsty, coming-of-age literature. Add to that list Rose of No Man’s Land by Michelle Tea (reviewed here) and Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned (reviewed here); both fictional accounts of teens dealing with crappy friends, families and social strictures. Pilgrims, the tale of 15 year-old Terry Webber, fits the bill.

Main character Terry lives with his barely functional father (acutely summed up by this passage, “He soaked his right heel, rust colored from part of a bottle cap stuck there, in a cereal bowl filled with bleach.”), skips school to hang out with a girl held back twice, shoplifts to pass the time and smokes an absurd amount of cigarettes.

The most cringe-worthy aspect of the book is that I feel like I know this guy. Not personally, but I vaguely recall seeing him, pock-marked with zits, dangerously thin in shredded jeans, smoking by the fence outside of school before taking the bus to the vocational program. This is the guy I avoided to the point of no longer noticing him. Now I know why.

There’s pretty much nothing redeemable about Land’s characters. They’re desperate without the aspiration to rise above their situation. They’re thankfully asexual for the most part, chilly and barely able to conjure a emotional response despite the fact that life continually craps on them. When Terry witnesses a brutal accident, his retort is to carve up his hands with a knife and huff air freshener.

But there is a precedent for such a work of unforgiving despair. Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner was published in 1975. The tale (skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want the ending ruined for you) is of an insomniac schoolteacher who spends her restless nights picking up men and kicking them out of her bed post-sex, pre-sleep. The story culminates in the protagonist being bludgeoned to death, handily stunting any hope of her turning her life around. Despite the serotonin-inhibiting properties of the story, it was made into a major motion picture starring Diane Keaton in 1979.

Similarly, famed travel writer Paul Theroux penned Hotel Honolulu, a collection of short stories set in the lush environs of Hawaii. However, all of the characters are plagued by demons, lives destined for ruin, all racing to their own demises. The charm of the book is that the juxtaposition of human ugliness with natural beauty leaves the reader waiting for the tropical sun to shine through.

Land’s Pilgrims offers no such hope. There is a crack of light at the end. Pale, wintery light underscored by pain, discomfiture and scar tissue. And the 200-plus page journey to get to that kernel of growth seems a steep price to pay. But Land isn’t offering an easy ride and his fans, likely, already know that.

— Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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