It’s difficult to talk about the work of David Leo Rice and not mention his natural predilection toward painting all of his protagonists as spectral (sometimes quite literally, as the dead narrator of “Joey in Vermont” in The Opiate, Vol. 2 showed us). His knack for the details–cutting to the core of what “minutiae” really means–only enhances the natural hyper-surreality of his style and preferred tableaus (desolate, sparse and often contingent upon a screen of the porn variety).
This time around, it’s Dodge City, Kansas, an amalgam of every city in the west: lavished in languor, liquor and larceny. No longer the representation of its immortalized silver screen incarnation, the days of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland have faded into a hollow shell. The crime and carnage Dodge City became known for in its true wild west days of the nineteenth century have faded into something far more flaccid. Just like all of America, really. And there’s no better structure for elucidating such a place than “a novel-in-vignettes,” as Alternating Current Press bills it. This patchwork form is ideally suited to unpacking our narrator’s arrival to the town as he explains, “I’ve given up on all people and engagements in the last phase of my life in order to come here, just as, before that, I gave up on the previous set of people and engagements in order to go there, and before that, and before that…”
The tone of resignation in the narrator’s voice is palpable in every vignette, and yet, upon occasion, there is a sense we feel that his guilt over life passing him by is deterred by passivity as a defense mechanism. He remarks, “…I consider the subject of Time. I’m still young, I reason, and have never known what it is not to be. As I stretch out on the moss, I picture myself as an old man, in a building somewhere in Town, in a chair with a blanket pulled up to my chin and wool cap down over my ears, a cup of cool tea beside me, the bag in a little saucer beside it. Perhaps then, as I spend day after day poring over my life, backing toward its end, my only regret will be: why did I sleep for fifteen minutes when I was young?”
And yet, atrophy is just about the only thing a person can engage in while living in Dodge City–or “passing through,” as they may initially believe. But like the path of life itself, Dodge City is a metaphor for somehow getting off course, for remaining trapped in the same point on the ladder you thought you could climb.
Time is, indeed, a constant rumination throughout Rice’s debut, with the narrator lamenting, “…a kind of sadness at the immensity of time overtakes me. I find that I can no longer remember how I came to Dodge City, nor why. Any story I generate, and I try a few, feels provisional, like I’m trying to convince a listener who long ago decided to believe nothing I say.” The narrator himself is that listener, unable to convince his own mind that a change is even possible anymore, that there’s hope for a future so mired in the filth and decline of the present.
Hence, an inevitable reliance on “legal” drugs for the purpose of assuagement as “He tries to swallow disappointment before it turns wild, but it looms up in him. Opening the suitcase, he slides a long finger inside, feeling around for the nearest soft antidepressant, praying for the strength to get back to work.”
And it isn’t just our narrator struggling to go through the motions. It’s also the roster of figuratively cracked out peripheral characters in each vignette as well. Among the endless eccentrics in Dodge City is the Proprietor of the Suicide Cemetery, “who I can tell isn’t long for this Town” and comments, “What I’m interested in, Suicide-wise, is volition. The desire to cross over, sight unseen. To go from somewhere to nowhere, not from somewhere to a more vivid somewhere, as those who Sacrifice themselves inevitably believe they are doing. I’m interested in those who cross over with no beckoning hand on the other side.” For even suicide is a nobler act than the alternative: persisting in a life spent in Dodge City, allegory for all of modern existence.
Rice’s nihilistic prose shines through at its best with parsimonious sentences that decode a larger ennui intermixed with reluctant acceptance (e.g. “A pizza box smacks the back of my head, and I see the air fill with dandruff and crumbs” or “At a loss for how to proceed, we go to the Movies to unwind”).
Even the promise expected to be held within the young can’t help but be tinged by the narrator’s take on the lore of a newly created family, annotating, “They watched the baby grow, his face so full of hope, so full of light and life…though, Jakob couldn’t help but fear, shaded also by a cloud of suspicion–the suspicion that life would not meet his expectations even if he lowered them, that life could never give the man what it had promised the boy.”
Yet, it’s true isn’t it? The life we think we’re destined for so often evades us, making the sales pitch of suicide all the more glamorous in Dodge City. Suicide Sam, another key player in the rotisserie of kooks, peddles self-inflicted death like the ultimate industry, giving the pitch, “‘What if I were to tell you that you–You!–could commit Suicide right here and right now with no strings attached, no Blood spilled nor organs ruptured, and, best of all, no effort or patience required.’ He’d pause, then continue, ‘By which I mean, would you give it all up if it didn’t hurt?'”
If you’re not into suicide, then maybe porn is your thing–or rather, it most definitely is. Another one of the many recurring characters, Big Pharmakos, allows Rice to expound on one of his great recurring themes: that we’ve all lost our zeal for analog sexuality. Our narrator explains of Big Pharma’s backstory, “‘I was the Main Pimp in this Hotel,’ he says. Before The Dodge City Gene Pool became fully Porn-based. Still get a few Flesh-lovers once in a while, like Drifter Jim and…'” There’s no place for the Flesh-lovers to find much satisfaction, however; and if you yourself are one, then you’re probably already well-aware.
As time soldiers, nay, plods along, offering only the evermore bizarre, the narrator finds himself in contempt of the present while also disdaining alternatives. After all, “But what else? Drift further, into a new Dodge City, to do it all again, until I reach this same moment there, to wonder again what I’m wondering now? Is that the way to live? Perhaps. Perhaps all one can do is run down the clock, keep ahead of it until it ends, suddenly, without there having been any dread in the lead-up.”
A post-apocalyptic trailer for the novel (Rice’s background also covers screenwriting, and therefore manifests with a flair for and value of the cinematic) highlights some of the most pertinent descriptions of Dodge City, including, “We pass a Dairy Queen whose parking lot marquee reads: ‘Another Day Too Sad For Words: $1.99.'” (a scene Christina Collins captures perfectly with her illustrations). But Rice puts this sadness into words quite poetically, even if it means showing us a reflection of ourselves we so often don’t want to look at too closely.