John Shannon: The Great American Novel I’d Never Heard Of

John Shannon's The Taking of the WatersUntil my friend Michael Harris gave me a copy of this (who has himself written a great American novel, The Chieu Hoi Saloon). Then I realised I had been encouraged to read John Shannon’s Jack Liffey detective novels by Michael and of course Gary Phillips, and I will now, I will. Mike Davis is a character, Ivan Monk pops up in there, they explore L.A. in ways that I love.

But that’s another series…this is a whole different thing. Compare it to Steinbeck or John dos Passos. It reads relatively quick for being so monumental in subject, a history of a century of American struggle over land, work and rights. A history of what was perhaps really at stake in the red-baiting that led to the destruction of so many lives, as well as the tangled relationships between socialism and working people in struggle.

It starts in the Owens Valley and ends there…there could be no better place. I wrote about it in a long ago blog post, it impressed me so profoundly. I was driving up through there with my friends Beverley and Jose, on our way to see Mono Lake. I knew something about the water and how it was stolen by LA (think Chinatown) but nothing prepared me for this landscape.

The Owens Valley

The Owens Valley

I found out that the people who farmed here had organised, had fought back, had dynamited the damn. They filled me respect.

Their saga is the first in John Shannon’s novel, wrapped in a narrative frame of a foreign journalist caught up in the search for redemption and the family histories of a friend of his, a third generation fighter who is no longer quite sure what he is fighting or how. It allows a step back from the intensity of the stories, a perspective Americans rarely get on histories Europeans rarely see. A clever conceit that works well for the most part (my only critique is that occasionally this feels confusing, a little labored, but looking back I’m still not sure what I think about it).

What struck me at first was not wealth at all. To grow up in a Europe of social democracy–whatever one feels about the accommodations the dream has made with privilege–and to arrive here suddenly is to be struck dumb by the experience of an entire subcontinent living, apparently, without a particle of social responsibility: the grandiose and tidy bank only a few meters from a trash-strewn lot inhabited by winos. (11)

The first story is that of Maxi Trumbull, fearless reporter covering Owens Valley and standing with the farmers. Her story is about the land and community, the complicated relationships we have with both. The importance of water to survival. The power of the city to destroy the countryside around it. Also, love. Loneliness. Commitment.

Her son is Slim Trumbull, raised in the valley but moving on to organise plants up in Detroit. His story is that of labour, fighting union machine along with the bosses, fighting across boundaries of race and loving across the boundaries of class — though he is less capable of such things than his mother. It is also the story of the gradual disillusion with communism. Something I see so strongly here in the UK, but confess to knowing no one in the US who had been through this:

…all Europeans defined themselves by when they left groups. After Hungary. After the failure of reform. After Euro-Communism. After Paris ’68. After Prague. After Poland. (270)

I discovered that there was a colour for model trains known as Tucson red. This makes me smile.

Her grandson is Clay Trumbell, and he drags the narrator back to where it all started — Owens Valley.  Fighting gangsters making porn, investigating the death of a woman and the threats against her daughter. The curious silence of everyone still left. This is more noir, and a curious contrast to the first two but one I like I think. What are we fighting these days? There are no grand narratives any more in the US, no driving ideology. Perhaps he could have chosen Monsanto, Nestle, gentrification and mass displacement…is it only time that makes these struggles feel so different to me?

The mob leaves people just as dead.

A fine book, one you should find and read.

[Shannon, John. (1994) The Taking of the Waters. Culver City, CA: John Brown Books.]

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