I recently moved from NYC to the suburbs. In preparing to depart the city, I made an effort to request a number of more hard to find books on my TBR pile that the NYPL had, but a smaller library would not have access to. Two of these books were The Troupe and American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. If you know anything about this site’s preferences, you likely know that we love RJB and consider him one of our collective favorite authors – he is even an NPC in our group Dungeons & Dragons campaign. His Divine Cities trilogy is one of our absolute favorite series ever, and The Founders Trilogy is climbing its way up there as he puts out more books. But, there are a number of his older books that we have never gotten to. Thus, I set out to complete my experience with all of his books and found myself reading two separate standalone novels of his in a single week.
Let’s start with The Troupe. This book tells the story of sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole. George is a very gifted pianist who has established himself in the vaudeville community in an attempt to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’ show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their very lives.
The Troupe, despite my love of vaudeville acts, is likely my least favorite of all of Bennett’s work I have read to date. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it feels like it lacks the sophistication and creativity that every one of his other novels has on full display. The characters are interesting, but not engrossing. The world is magical, but not wondrous. You can see the beginnings of the style that I have come to love in his more recent works on display, but his signature creativity of worlds and cleverness of themes are not quite present. One thing I did enjoy about The Troupe is that it feels a lot closer to horror than most of Bennett’s other work, and horror is something that Bennett does very very well. But there is an odd clash of atmospheric cues, as George feels like a more simplistic character out of a young adult novel, while the supporting cast feels like twisted adult characters that have complex pasts. I really enjoyed the characterization of the troupe’s members, but George fell very flat for me as a protagonist. George does grow, but he does it in these awkward lurches forward that feel like watching bad actors read off lines. I like where he ends up, but I don’t like how he got there.
On the positive side, the plot of The Troupe was very surprising and original. The ending, like all Bennett books, was powerful and meaningful and did a lot of the work to charm me, despite my lukewarm feelings about the rest of the book. Bennett clearly had some big thoughts that he wanted to build this story towards like a staircase into the sky, but I think there are just a few steps missing. All in all, I think The Troupe is a fascinating case study for someone who is already a fan of Bennett’s work, or a great book for someone who loves horror and vaudeville, but not the first book I would hand to an RJB newcomer.
American Elsewhere, on the other hand, is absolutely a book I would give to anyone without reservation. This book is Bennett’s take on the small, sleepy American town that’s hiding big secrets. Wink, New Mexico – a perfect little town not found on any map. In this town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. Our story follows Mona Bright, an ex-cop who inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different.
American Elsewhere is Bennett’s interpretation of the American dream, and it is simply brilliant. It’s about answering the question, “what would happen if extraterrestrial beings took the promise of America at complete face value?” It’s strange, terrifying, poignant, and playful, and I had an absolute blast reading it. The narrative hops between two foci. The first follows the main cast as it tells this sweeping story that is part science fiction, part horror, and part thriller. The second is these little vignettes of the ‘aliens’ trying to find their own slices of America and how those interpretations go horrifyingly wrong. The two narratives mix extremely well to paint this vivid alternative take on the American dream and it surprises and delights. The themes are well-realized, the characters are deep, and the plot is gripping. There isn’t a lot more that I can ask from a novel, though there are one or two places for improvement.
While I love the majority of the characters, Mona herself felt a bit flat. While Bennett leaves her open to the experience, giving the readers a self-insert, there wasn’t enough to her character to build contrast with the themes that make people fully invest in her story. She just doesn’t feel like she has a lot of thoughts, feelings, or reactions to things, sorta like she’s just on autopilot. I just didn’t feel as close a connection with her as I have with other Bennett characters. In addition, the pacing of American Elsewhere is a little wonky. There are certain sections that can feel very slow and lose the momentum of the story. However, other than these two complaints, I very much enjoyed every other part of the story.
In the end, both The Troupe and American Elsewhere are compelling reads for Bennett fans, but Elsewhere does a much better job at standing alone as a strong novel. I would recommend either book to a reader who feels drawn to the subject matter and I feel like it is pretty hard to go wrong with Bennett regardless of which of his books you pick up. Whether you are simply looking for more content after you finish The Divine Cities, or feel a hankering for a decent standalone novel because you don’t want to commit to a series, these books are for you.
The Troupe – 7.5/10
American Elsewhere – 9.0/10