It is 2008, in the middle of the great banking crisis and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Salinger Nash, an artist based in London, receives a phone call from his brother Carson who has lived in America for most of his adult life, asking him to travel to America where the two of them will go on a road trip to try to track down their father. This is the essence of Tim Lott’s new novel, Under The Same Stars, his first adult novel since 2009 when he published the highly regarded Rumours of a Hurricane.
The younger brother Salinger is named after the writer J.D. Salinger of Catcher in the Rye fame, and Carson is named after Carson McCullers – two great American writers who specialise in the theme of loneliness. Their father abandoned the two boys and their mother when they were young and refused to have any further contact with them. Perhaps the exigencies of the time are reminding them that their father must be very old now and is going to die without seeing how his sons turned out (and don’t we all want to show our parents what happened to us?).
Salinger’s character is imbued with a typically London cynicism which is his defence against disappointment and rejection. Salinger lives with his girlfriend but the relationship seems to be floundering and perhaps this is time to go to the USA and see what happens when he returns. Carson on the other hand is a born-again Christian, and is relentlessly upbeat, responding to every negative remark with a unrealistically optimistic cliché. Perhaps both men have adopted personas which in some way protect them from the sense of rejection they acquired as boys when their father left them.
Salinger is not surprised to find that Carson’s has done extremely well in America. He has a perfect home, a perfect wife and a shiny new Lexus sitting in the driveway. The car is Carson’s pride and joy and he wipes it clean both inside and out at the end of every day. Salinger seems to delight in dropping small items of rubbish on the floor knowing that this will irritate his older brother.
As they travel across the American South, the banter between the two men has a cutting edge with childhood rivalries never far below the surface. The contrast between Carson’s positivity and Salinger’s cynicism leads to endless bickering between them, not only on personal themes but also on the contrasting attitudes between Britons and Americans. I enjoyed the spat which erupted when Carson erupts at yet another one of Salinger’s cutting remarks about bland, corporate America:
“All this bitching about globalization, standardization, homogenization. Think what England was like before it arrived. What was there before Starbucks? Second-rate greasy spoons where the tea was stewed and the coffee tasted like mud. What was there before McDonald’s? Wimpy Bars. What was there before Gap? Burton. And you’re telling me we’re screwing up the world?”
The Lexus came to a halt. The Holiday Inn sign flickered high at the end of the street. A static jigsaw of traffic held them in its grip.
“1951. That was the golden year. Coming of the malls. Victor Gruen, the first modern mall in Seattle. Model taken up all over the world. Clean, quiet, dry, temperature-controlled. What did we have in Willesden? The high street. What was in the high street? Bakers selling soggy rolls. Butchers selling sausages filled with cardboard and toenails. Fishmongers with three varieties of fish. The Cosy Nook café, the Copper Kettle, the Buttery”.
Tim Lott puts the two brothers through various adventures, not least the theft of the beautiful Lexus. An unlikely cop helps them out and the brothers travel on by motorbike, enjoying the temporary thrill of living for a few days in a James Dean movie.
Eventually the brothers arrive at their destination, the small town where their father was last reported to be living. They do not know his address and have to hunt round various cheap cafés and diners in the hope of spotting him. I won’t say what happens in the end but it is definitely a suitable ending, despite some reservations about the final resolution which although satisfying seemed a little trite to me.
I read this book while on holiday and it turned out to be a perfect match for my mood. Light enough to be amusing, but also having enough grit to hold my interest and keep me returning to it as I hovered between promenade benches and open-air cafés. While my wife read the newspaper I found myself eager to travel the next few miles with the two brothers as they drove along America’s giant freeways and quiet back-roads. A 4-star read but still very good.
This was not a review copy.