Journeyman by Marc Bojanowski

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Reviewed by Susan Osborne

There’s something very attractive about a state of the nation novel. It offers the chance to examine a snapshot of a country, taking in the many forces at play in its society at a particular point in its history. There’s been a rash of them in the UK in recent years – John Lanchester’s Capital, Jonathan Coe’s Number 11, Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, Blake Morrison’s South of the River – to name but a few. Nothing new, of course: George Eliot’s Middlemarch is perhaps one of the finest state of the nation novels in British fiction. Marc Bojanaowski’s Journeyman follows in that long literary tradition offering us a portrait of the USA through the eyes of Nolan Jackson, an itinerant carpenter and self-styled modern cowboy.

The book opens dramatically with Nolan looking up at a painter spraying the house he’s been working on, admiring the bright sunlight shining through the tiny paint globules suspended in the air. His boss walks past, throwing a sarcastic aside at him, then calling up to the painter to ask if he’d like anything from the deli. The painter replies, puts his spray gun aside and unthinkingly lights up, igniting the residual paint all around him. Days later, urged by his colleagues, Nolan goes to the hospital to see the painter but finding his wife already there, draws back into the doorway then leaves. Nolan needs a world in which there is order, where what is broken can be mended. Emotions are far too messy. He visits his girlfriend, not telling her that this will be their last time together, packs his belongings meticulously into his trailer and takes off. A freak accident deprives him of both his car and trailer en route to see his brother. With no other option, Nolan moves in with Cosmo (née Chance) and finds himself living in his brother’s garage, riding a pink bicycle around Burnridge and renovating a farmhouse with a Mexican crew. This is what he does: loses himself in work, enjoying the camaraderie of colleagues, then packs up and moves on at the slightest hint of emotional involvement but this time things may be different. Hit hard by his marriage breakdown, consumed with conspiracy theories and anger, it’s clear that Cosmo’s in need of some fraternal support. All this unfolds against a backdrop of a small town with a film crew in residence and an arsonist on the loose.

Set in 2007, Bojanowski’s novel catches America almost at a tipping point. The good times are still rolling but we know they’re about to end. Nolan has been building nothing but McMansions for several years, his craftsman’s pride offended by the careless way in which they’re thrown up but signs of trouble ahead are already there: Cosmo’s divorce has left him horribly extended, barely able to keep up the payments on the house he and his wife could hardly afford. The war in Afghanistan is raging but Cosmo and Nolan are still suffering the fallout of another war many considered ill-advised, their childhood coloured by their father’s experience in Vietnam and its effects on him. These two themes are subtly woven through the novel, ever present but never overshadowing it. Nolan’s character is perceptively drawn, his taciturnity and determination to keep to the edges of other people’s lives expressed in spare almost terse but beautifully crafted prose. Bojanowski has a nice line in sharp observations: Nolan’s not a man ‘raised among men who wear Western hats, but he’s come to feel most at ease around them’; ‘Hollywood stretches the truth’ says Nolan to which a bartender ripostes ‘Hell, we all do, they just make money at it’. It’s an absorbing read, and rewarding with it. Nolan’s journey is a different one from his usual escape route, taking in a little redemption along the way. And the ending raised a smile.

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From Susan Osborne A Life in Books Never, ever leave home without a book

Marc Bojanowski, Journeyman, (Granta Books, 2016). 9781783782512, 176pp.,  trade paperback.

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