INTERSTATE. By Stephen Dixon. Henry Holt and Co. 374 pages. $25. OVER THE course of 16 works of fiction, Baltimore author Stephen Dixon has constructed a vision of contemporary life that's at once morbid, hysterical and frighteningly true. Mr. Dixon's quirky run-on sentence writing style has earned him the adoration of many of his former students at Johns Hopkins University (this reviewer among them), colleagues in academia and book critics.
Yet, although Mr. Dixon has received his share of accolades from the high-brow literary world -- his last novel, the colossal "Frog," received nominations for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award -- his work has only recently started to get the sort of attention that it deserves. Last year's compilation, "The Stories of Stephen Dixon," is readily available from any large mall bookstore; earlier classics of urban angst such as "Movies," "Too Late," and "Love and Will," unfortunately, languish in obscurity or are out of print.
Here's hoping that the publication of "Interstate," his latest novel, will fan the flames of appreciation for this modern master of the art of fiction. One of Mr. Dixon's most cohesive treatises on the horrors that float just beneath the surface of American life, "Interstate" gives the reader a ride on the stream of consciousness of a man experiencing the ultimate fear: the death of a child.
Nathan Frey is a devoted father and husband who must suddenly deal with the fact that his little girl Julie has been shot by a passing maniac on the interstate. Everyone thinks he has the composure to deal with a crisis situation; Nathan learns the truth about himself as he quickly falls to pieces under the pressure. How do you try to keep your daughter alive on a nearly deserted highway when she's bleeding to death from a bullet wound in the chest? How do you call your wife at her parents' house to tell her the news? And how do you deal with the knowledge that had you done something differently that day -- stopped at that last rest stop for a few minutes, driven a little faster or slower -- you might have avoided your daughter's murder altogether?
Aside from the base fact of the tragedy, all other details in the book are fragmented. Mr. Dixon presents us with eight scenarios of the events leading up to and following that one inciting incident, many of which directly contradict one another. The best chapter shows Nathan doggedly hunting down the two men responsible for Julie's death; in this scenario, Nathan ends up serving a long prison term and is alienated from his family. Another has him praying desperately alongside the corpse, promising to devote his life to God -- if he can have his daughter back. A later chapter has him avoid the gunman entirely only to meet with a similar fate under different circumstances farther down the interstate.
Like every Dixon hero, we see Nathan Frey warts and all: here quibbling with and upsetting his daughters earlier in the day at FAO Schwarz toy store, there drifting into idle sexual fantasy at the most inappropriate times. Nathan Frey is a collection of nervousness, anxiety and uncertainty -- in short, he's a human being trying to cope with universal human problems, sometimes with success and sometimes with humiliating failure.
"Interstate" takes no shortcuts and uses no euphemisms in confronting the dark side of our jarring, claustrophobic and increasingly violent society. It's a blunt and revelatory look at the anxieties that creep around in our subconscious night after night; it won't soon be forgotten.
Dave Edelman is an editor of Critics' Choice magazine on America Online. He writes from Gaithersburg.