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The Drop Edge of Yonder by Rudolph Wurlitzer
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The Drop Edge of Yonder is a western in that it is set on the American frontier during the California gold rush. It is not a western in just about every other aspect.

Of course, there’s plenty of senseless violence, thievery, sex, gambling, and drinking to satisfy anyone pining after America’s glorious past, but from the very beginning the novel sets out to do something different—to give us a sense of the underlying worldviews that come with living in a barren, untamed landscape. The epigraph, taken from the Lankavatara Sutra, one of the ancient Buddhist texts, seems just as much a warning as a guide for readers: “Things are not as they appear. Nor are they otherwise.” This is true not only for the events that take place in the novel, but also for the characters as they drift, murder, and philosophize.

The main character, Zebulon, drifts throughout most of the novel with almost no direction. At first this is fine, as the dream-like language and the surrealistic encounters with healers and oracles and second-seers is enough to carry the novel. However, after a significant middle-section, devoted to Zebulon’s travel with a Russian count and his slave/wife, the story seems to meander, as if Wurlitzer had an abundance of scenes floating around in his head and no place to put them.

Apparently The Drop Edge of Yonder is based on Wurlitzer’s unproduced screenplay Zebulon, which makes sense, considering that most chapters are short and composed mostly of either dialogue or action. The descriptive passages in the book are beautiful, providing a sense of place, and of the characters’ perceptions of place and consciousness; the book could benefit from more description, a slower pace, more room to breathe.

That said, The Drop Edge of Yonder is absolutely worth a read. Wurlitzer has gained cult status because he writes as no one else does—philosophically, surrealistically, and violently. It’s like Cormac McCarthy on hallucinogens. In one scene, as Zebulon begins to drift drunkenly into a dream-state during a game of cards, in which all things look familiar and unified, Wurlitzer states, “He was dimly aware that he might be in trouble because winning and losing no longer seemed to matter, as if the results had already been decided.” Wurlitzer presents the frontier as a land of individualistic competition, and yet simultaneously as a place where life is uncontrollable, untamable, and surrendered to fate. The characters are in a constant struggle for control over their own lives; and it always seems just out of reach.

Review by Caleb Murray, Indigo Editing, LLC, originally posted at Seeing Indigo.

ISBN: 9780976389552
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Pub Date: April 2008
Paperback: $15.00
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