Critic's Rating = 5 stars

Time Out New York / Issue 653 : Apr 2–8, 2008
Book review
The Drop Edge of Yonder

By Rudolph Wurlitzer. Two Dollar Radio, $15 paperback.

Rudolph Wurlitzer’s dreamy and brutal new Western might read as a meditation on death, but the novelist himself is in the midst of a rebirth. Two films for which he wrote the screenplays—Two-Lane Blacktop and Walker—were recently reissued as DVDs that feature nimble commentary from the author. And The Drop Edge of Yonder, Wurlitzer’s first novel in 24 years, is his best to date. Set in the 1850s, it’s a droll, violent picaresque about a “mountain lunatic” named Zebulon Shook, who early on falls under the curse of a dying woman. He gambles his way across New Mexico, through South America and up to northern California, which is in the senseless-killing stages of gold fever. A relentless self-mythologizer, Zebulon becomes a famous outlaw for crimes both real and imagined. He’s a born survivor on the lam, but he can’t shake his love interest, an elegant African drifter named Delilah, or his antagonistic stepbrother, Hatchet Jack.

Like most of Wurlitzer’s work, Drop Edge is enchanted by lonely people on the move. But Zebulon’s journey isn’t just geographical: He shuttles between dreams and reality, near-mysticism and gritty realism, frontier independence and monogomous desire. His travels read, in some ways, like an attempt to outrun greed and gentrification—the efforts to establish order in the West. With its cameo by Commodore Vanderbilt, the book also hints at the cyclical brutality of American history. But thanks to its surreal plot and crackling down-and-out dialogue—reminiscent of Joy Williams and early Thomas McGuane—this novel never feels like a lecture. It’s the rare book that possesses not just big ideas, but the daring cleverness to pull them off.

—Michael Miller