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Speeding along the highway

31 March 2012

10:00 AM

31 March 2012

10:00 AM

Under the Same Stars Tim Lott

Simon & Schuster, pp.341, 16.99

Back in the Sixties, if you wanted a fruitful, freakout-free LSD experience, you might have called on Mrs Aldous Huxley in Los Angeles, where she lived as a beatifically attuned Buddhist adept until her death in 2007. Aldous Huxley, her husband, had emigrated to America 70 years earlier in search of spiritual solace and the ‘benediction’ offered by psychotropic drugs. Evelyn Waugh was not alone in thinking that the States had driven Huxley dotty. Jim Morrison, the psychedelic Frank Sinatra, named his California band The Doors after Huxley’s crackpot hymn to the mescaline experience, The Doors of Perception.

Tim Lott’s sixth novel, Under the Same Stars, dilates entertainingly on British attitudes to America as a supermarket for far-out fads and Huxley-like cults. Henry Nash, a disaffected Englishman, had left for New Mexico 30 years ago, having abandoned his wife and two sons to their home in suburban north London. (Like Huxley, he had ‘lost his way’.) Little is heard of Henry from then on. One day his oldest son Carson decides to follow in his footsteps and embrace the American life in New Orleans as a born-again Christian. He has no or very little contact there with his fugitive father.

In 2008, on the eve of the world banking crisis, Carson receives a phone call from his younger brother Salinger in London. Estranged by sibling rivalry, they have not spoken in years. Salinger says he wants to go off in search of his father in America; Carson cautiously agrees to accompany him. What follows is a Thelma and Louise-like road novel, in which the wide open spaces of America are vividly etched. As the brothers drive through cacti-prickly desert and the Texas plains, their distinct personalities emerge. Salinger, morose and withdrawn, affects to dislike the wholesome living and open skies of the American dream, while Carson embodies a detergent-clean optimism and belief in elasticated waistbands and Cheestrings. As his spiffy new Lexus glides comfortably along the highway, the mellow denim sounds of Crosby, Stills and Nash waft from the car radio.  

In the course of their quest, the brothers bicker constantly and sometimes cruelly. (‘You crying, Sal? Man, you’re such a fricking girl.’) Before long, mishaps occur. Carson runs over and kills a dog; then his Lexus gets stolen from a steak-house car park. On Salinger’s prompting he rents a motorbike. The novel gathers emotional momentum as the brothers, astride their Triumph, get closer to their father. In spite of his Christianity and church-going ‘massage therapist’ wife LouLou, Carson is shown to have a violent past which he is at pains to conceal from his brother. What lies beneath his sincere Christian smile?

Lott, by inclination a confessional writer, is drawn to stories of family discontent. Under the Same Stars, a tender-hearted novel of sibling rivalries, is no less memorable than his family memoir The Scent of Dried Roses. Very occasionally the therapist’s couch shows in the prose (‘A single thought drifted into the slipstream of his understanding’); otherwise the writing is sharp as a tack and unfailingly fun to read.  

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