Friday, 28 September 2018

Book Review: X Out of Wonderland by David Allan Cates

To everybody the world may occasionally seem unreal like the scenario of a fairy-tale or a dream because something unusual and improbable is happening. The situation may even be so dumbfounding that those living it behave like sleepwalkers or automatons for a while. Unshakable optimism and absolute trust in a person, a system or even an idea can produce a similar effect because they often distort the view of things to allow seeing them as desired instead of as they are. The novel X Out of Wonderland by David Allan Cates surrounds a protagonist who was taught to believe firmly and unquestioningly in the forces of the global free market and in its power to provide the best for all. Even when misfortune strikes him hard all of a sudden leaving him jobless, homeless and without the most intriguing woman that he just met, he endures everything without losing faith.

David Allan Cates was born in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, in 1956. Born and raised on the family’s farm near Spring Green, he studied journalism at the University of Montana. He was a professional basketball player in Costa Rica, a translator in Honduras, an English teacher in Japan, and a fishing guide on the Smith River and he raised cattle on his family’s farm, before he became executive director of Missoula Medical Aid for 18 years. Since the early 1990s he has turned his attention to writing fiction and poetry. He published short stories in different periodicals and brought out his first novel titled Hunger in America in 1992 followed by award-winning X Out of Wonderland only in 2005. Three more novels, namely Freeman Walker (2008), Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (2012), and Tom Connor’s Gift (2014), followed. The author’s latest publication is a volume of poetry titled The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan (2016). He currently teaches writing at the Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, Washington, USA. David Allan Cates lives in Missoula, Montana, USA, with his wife and family.

Until events drive X Out of Wonderland, he enjoys all pleasures and amenities that his magnificent country can offer. Well-educated X has a job that he loves, he may call a beautiful house his home, and he meets the most intriguing woman called C, but then his fortune changes without warning. He loses his job and a tornado strikes his house reducing it to pencil-shaped splinters in an instant. His insurance company is bankrupt, so he doesn’t get a penny, and C vanishes when the makeshift shelter where he found her safe and sound is turned back into a gym.
“[…] X breathed deeply, held the air in his lungs, and pretended he was watching himself walk across a movie screen. He was the star, and the camera followed him in slow motion, and he imagined grand and inspiring music. He was a man walking along the street of a small city on a hot summer day. A man who’d lost it all, and yet the Global Free Market and the country of Wonderland would provide. Something in his bearing, the tilt of his head, the length of his stride, or his ragged clothes suggested mystery and possibility to the casual onlooker, […]”
The true misfortunes of X begin, though, when he leaves town together with a boy and a woman in pink lamé whom he met in a bar. They give two cowboys a ride and soon find themselves pointed at with guns. Even worse, the cowboys shoot the boy and at the borders they denounce X and the pink lady as terrorists which leads to their being put into jail at once. After a while, X is transferred to a private (cheaper) jail across the border and eventually the guard throws him out on the street because of further budget cuts.
“Miraculously, X still had some of the 187 dollars that C had given him. Feeling hungry, and hearing a commotion down the block and around the corner, he set off to find something to eat.
He turned the corner and saw a cloud of dust and a cluster of shanties and people that extended for blocks. The market! He felt happy to be here, happy to have money in his pocket, happy to finally be free to shop. He strode confidently down the street and entered into the mass of humanity and commodities. […]”
Among the vendors on the market X recognises the woman in pink lamé and they join forces. Their business thrives until they are “asked” to pay for “protection”. Customers begin to avoid the market, shops close. One night, thugs kidnap the pink lady and X is forced to slave away in a shoestring factory for a living. There the boy believed dead reappears malformed and cruel, but it’s the reencounter with C who is a stakeholder of the factory that changes everything. C and X become a couple and they have a good life together although only for a time…

The novel X Out of Wonderland clearly imitates Voltaire’s classical satire Candide from 1759 setting similar adventures of a determinedly optimistic protagonist in the second half of the twentieth century and focusing on economics instead of philosophy. Like in its French model, the story’s perspective is that of an unconcerned narrator whose third-person account reminds at the same time of the fairy-tale or fable and of the adventure novel. The action-driven plot centres on the ups and above all the downs of human existence in a society that religiously trusts in the principles of capitalism based on the regulatory power of the forces of a completely free global market. Nonetheless, there’s room for romantic love beside fatalism. Since the novel is meant to be a satire, much in it is exaggerated to the point of appearing bizarre if not utterly absurd, but still close enough to reality to be somewhat plausible and thought-provoking, even shocking at times. Wonderland is easily recognisable as twisted mirror image of the USA, while the characters are too caricatured to evoke certain individuals. The author’s language is simple and efficient with a dash of irony virtually in every sentence that make it a pleasurable read.

It’s unlikely that I’d ever have come across the novel X Out of Wonderland by David Allan Cates, if I hadn’t signed up for the 2018 Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge on Escape With A Good Book in January and found myself at a loss for a book title starting with the rare letter X. Luckily, I made a good choice and the read even turned out to be more engaging and entertaining than I had expected. It’s certainly true that in literary quality, philosophical depth and originality of narrative this modern American satire can’t stand comparison with its French model from the eighteenth century, but then, how many contemporary authors are there who can compete with Voltaire? At any rate, I really enjoyed reading the humorous critique of our free market society that runs increasingly wild in an ever more globalised and money-obsessed world. Therefore I gladly recommend it today.

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