William Brewer’s debut novel, The Red Arrow, is three books in one: a portrait of the artist as a young man; a devastating send-up of the publishing industry; and, finally, a Hessian journey into the liberating potential of psychedelics.
It’s exhilarating to be a passenger on this wild ride.
The story begins with Brewer’s narrator—a struggling artist turned writer—traveling by train from Rome to Modena. There, he is to meet a character called the Physicist, a trailblazing scientist whose memoir the writer has been hired to produce in order to repay the advance on his own unwritten novel, a planned epic depicting the Great Monongahela River Chemical Spill of 1996.
Like his protagonist, Brewer was raised in West Virginia—his 2017 book of poetry, I Know Your Kind, traces the impact of the opioid epidemic on his home turf with bitter accuracy. Now a lecturer in Stanford’s English Department, he vividly depicts in the novel all the ways that one can go down the blind alley of endless research as a way to avoid the task at hand.
A series of seriocomic close encounters includes a disastrous trip to Philadelphia, where the narrator accompanies his wife-to-be, Annie, to a tech conference only to pick a fight at a sports bar with a hockey fan who accidentally spills beer on him.
“Go back to your stupid fucking team,” he tells the unwitting stranger, with predictable consequences.
The character’s personal life is almost as explosive: he loses it when he learns his father has moved a 29-volume Time-Life Library of Art, bestowed as a parting gift by his alcoholic mother, from its shelf near the living room.
Later, with masochistic self-mockery, he summons a fantasy of what it might be like to be interviewed.
“I’d lean back in,” Brewer writes in his character’s voice, “while meditating on what to do with the big new canvas stretched by my assistants, a great blank plane glowing under northerly windows, the kind of scene a photographer might like to capture for a profile in Art in America or the Times.… And those books, the journalist would ask, what’s the story with those? Those? I’d say almost sheepishly.… Those are where all of this began.”
This is what an English professor of mine used to call compensatory imagination—the desire for the perfect scenarios one never finds in life—and it’s to Brewer’s considerable credit that he satirizes such pretensions so deftly and so well.
Things take further flight after the narrator, crippled by self-doubt, suicidal ideation, and potential bankruptcy, seeks escape through psychedelics. This interest is sparked by Antony, a fatally ill friend who has read an article by Michael Pollan about doctors who administer psilocybin so terminal patients can experience “ego death” and better face their own.
Racked with guilt for not helping Antony explore this treatment, the protagonist decides it may be a solution for his own ills. In an almost Dickensian coincidence, the Santa Cruz–based literary agent who hired him for the Physicist project is also a Pollan acolyte and agrees to connect him with a guide who’s “been involved with this medicine since forever, almost all the way back to Menlo Park when it was legal.”
Reader, it cures him.
How you feel about the latter part of The Red Arrow may depend on your view of the redemptive power of mind-altering substances. The character’s up-close-and-personal encounter with the Physicist (when he is finally able to chase him down) establishes parallels between the men. The Physicist’s famous mantra—“Time is not a line with two equal directions: it is an arrow with different extremities”—serves equally well as a metaphor for Brewer’s interlocking narrative.
When his troubled narrator and Annie first make their way out West, Brewer’s prose summons Kerouac and too many other seekers to name: “we got out and smelled the winds that had blown there all the way from Asia and watched the water shift from emerald to cobalt to slate to a green more brilliant than the emerald before, and I was crazy enough to think that’s all it’d take—a quick drive across the country—to finally sever myself from my own private hell, when it turned out to be right there, waiting for us, with arms as open as the land.”
Make what you will of these adventures in cosmic consciousness—The Red Arrow may or may not be an exercise in autofiction—but the inevitable challenges and satisfactions of the road remain.•