“The Long Take” is about a soldier who washes up in Los Angeles after the second world war.
The soldier who comes home from the war is one of literature’s most venerable figures, dating at least to Homer and Aeschylus. The veteran in “The Long Take” is Walker, a Canadian who, after the Nazis are defeated, washes up first in New York and then Los Angeles. Like the travails of Odysseus and Agamemnon, his tale is mostly told in verse—a medium rarely used in novels, and hardly ever this successfully.
Readers wary of the form need not be: Robin Robertson’s poetry injects rhythm and momentum into a narrative that is equal parts art and superbly modulated rage. Its main reference point is not myth but movies. Walker is a film buff in a noirish world of booze and broads. People call each other “buddy”, “friend” and “Mac”, and say things like: “You and me are all washed up, see? Kaput.” After a night on the tiles he is “blurred from drink/like an accidental photograph”.
In Los Angeles he takes a job as a cub reporter, falling in with two veteran hacks:
They smoked full-time, traded girls like baseball cards,
wore their hats tipped back,
had a bad word to say about everyone, told stories
even they didn’t believe.
“Sometimes”, Walker hypothesises about a national self-image that seems to have been forged on screen, “I think the only American history is on film.”
He drinks because he is traumatised, stuffing his ears on New Year’s Eve to blot out the boom of the fireworks. On a flight to Los Angeles from San Francisco, where he has been reporting on California’s homeless, many of them fellow veterans, he realises that: “The stewardess was standing over him—frightened,/it looked like./Someone in his seat was screaming.” During the d-Day landings and in the fighting that followed Walker has witnessed terrible things, memories that are distilled in snatches of prose, as are those of his early life in Nova Scotia. This fractured format helps to convey the sense of a disintegrating mind:
The tide coming in on a soldier impaled on a German tripod, his guts stringing out around him like a kilt…All these men: waiting so long, to die so fast.
The story unspools through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, picking up echoes of the McCarthyite witch-hunts and the stirrings of the civil-rights movement. Los Angeles—invoked in a litany of street names, a love letter that is also an elegy—is razed and redeveloped. Sending him off on assignment, Walker’s editor spells out the racket for him:
I mean the fact that two-thirds of this cityis a fenced-off ghetto;
that there’s graft and corruption running right the way through.
I mean the fact that this is a country where there aren’t enough homes,
enough jobs, where one in six Angelenos are ex-servicemen
and they’re lying out on Skid Row—but all anyone ever talks about is watching for Russians,
huac locking up half of Hollywood,
the government building more bombs.
We won the war, but we’re living like we lost it.
Gradually the violence of war and the depredations of the city bleed into each other; towards the end, Walker encounters an “old doll” whose face is “a ruin of crumbling plaster…her mouth/like it’d been dug out with a knife.” “The Long Take” is a wondrous novel about visions and reality, about the aftermath of conflict and the making of America, and the impossibility of going home.