John Wayne is back, pilgrim, and if you don’t believe me, just check out this novel. Neither an homage nor a lampoon, Girl in Landscape simply, but ingeniously, casts the Duke of our collective memory (it’s him, it’s really him, from his squint to his gait!) as a terse-talking, charismatic loner, much as he appeared in his most famous role, as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.
Like that classic John Ford Western, Lethem’s sneaky little parable about community, sex, racism, and courage takes place amid the desert splendor of Monument Valley — with one significant difference: This Monument Valley happens to be on another world. Sometime in the apocalyptic future, an unsuccessful Brooklyn politician named Clement Marsh takes his three children to the newly colonized Planet of the Archbuilders. Marsh hopes to organize the human settlers living there into a just society that will include the planet’s native race of superintelligent, though ”impossible to fathom,” ambulatory weeds. (They all talk like Zippy the Pinhead in nonstop non sequiturs.)
Quickly, though, Marsh’s civilizing efforts go awry, thwarted at every turn by the aggressive and xenophobic Efram Nugent (”played” by…guess who). Meanwhile, Pella Marsh, a 13-year-old poised on the brink of adolescence and ”growing a new body…under her clothes,” disengages from her family. The girl spends her days and nights spying on the grown-ups. Especially Efram Nugent. At first with eroticized fascination, then with disgust and growing horror, Pella watches as Nugent’s prejudice triggers catastrophe.
What in bald summary might sound like a sledgehammer lecture about bigotry seems anything but that in execution. One of our most inventive, stylish, and sensuous writers, Lethem (As She Climbed Across the Table; Gun, With Occasional Music) is too cunningly smart to waste his time and ours belaboring the obvious. And for all its borrowings — from Hollywood Westerns to pulp science fiction to John Wayne’s screen persona — Girl in Landscape may well be the freshest American novel published so far this year. A