Toward the end of Adam Gnade's Hymn California, the narrator poses a question that illuminates the dark and less-traveled road his characters deliberately have chosen. Where would you be, he wonders inwardly about a lost-soul friend who soothes the “rawness of living” with a needle in his vein, if you had taken the other road? “Would you be working an office job in the honeycombs of industrial valley buildings which look like ant farms from the street at night?”
That imagery is meant to elicit a shudder in those who get it. Such readers will praise Gnade's debut novel as a jubilant paean to the unfettered life many of us long for but are infinitely too chicken to pursue, an existence outside of fluorescent-lit cubicles and the sanity of steady paychecks.
Hymn California is a story both romanticized and smeared with blood and shit. The narrator, James, a contemporary take on the vagabond archetype seen in American literature from Huck Finn to Kerouac, leaves his San Diego home with no particular destination in mind. America for James becomes long, lonely stretches of highway and cricket-soundtracked summer evenings looking out over Midwestern cornfields. He drinks beer with bands in basements, crashes on couches, rides the Greyhound and starves until someone hands him a sandwich and a six-pack. Sometimes he's with Frankie, his girlish young love, and sometimes he's utterly alone. He suffers and has the time of his life.
Before I continue, an important disclosure: I've known Gnade, a former local writer now living in Portland, for nearly a decade, during which time we've been friends, neighbors, conspirators and colleagues. When I'd resigned myself to a career of mouse-clicking, he encouraged me to write. And years later, when he quit his job as editor of San Diego's now-defunct weekly paper Fahrenheit and announced he was going to roam the country, the news sent me reeling with envy and awe. Who has the balls to do that?
Gnade did, and I'd occasionally get an e-mail or postcard about it. As I was reading his book, I was struck by how familiar it all sounded. I had to ask my old buddy where fiction ended and autobiography began.
“Everything is as it happened,” Gnade replied. “The only things I changed are peoples' names. I call it ‘fiction' because I don't feel like I can call something ‘memoir' when it happened just, y'know, six months ago.”
Hymn California, he says, is about his reaction to death—he's been personally affected by it to an eerie degree. “The parts that don't seem like they're about death are periods of denying and forgetting that it's there. It ends with no resolution about mortality; there's no answers, just questions.”
Sometimes those questions are stated too literally, a weakness in his writing. But his strengths—a loose and colorful vernacular and characters who feel like people you've known, or maybe secretly wanted to know—make up for it.
Gnade's response to death was trying to outrun that “fucking growling THING over your shoulder.” But as he was fleeing, he inadvertently began a chase, too, of life—agonizing, beautiful life on the road less traveled. As the poet Robert Frost wrote: “And that has made all the difference.”