In the late 1970s, as a parting gift to an editor who was leaving the magazine where I then wrote a book column, I offered a copy of Peter Handke's Short Letter, Long Farewell. He didn't like it. "It's one of those books where the narrator is taking his emotional temperature every two minutes," he said. "Who's got time for that?" And it would have been a fair comment, if in fact the thermometer Handke's unnamed narrator uses – he's an Austrian just arrived in the United States, he turns thirty in the course of the story, that's about all we know about him – weren't boiling in his mouth, all the way across the country, from Providence to Los Angeles, from sea to shining sea. He checks into his first hotel, boards the elevator, looks at "the old Negro operator": "Suddenly, as often happens to me when I am in a room with other people and no one has said anything for a while, I was sure that in another second the Negro would go mad and fling himself at me." "I began to giggle," he says after he enters his room, "and finally, in fit of exuberance, punched myself in the head so hard that I almost toppled into the bathtub." Right here, in Handke's first three pages, you get on the train of the novel or you get off.
The plot can be summarized in a manner that leaves out nearly the whole of the book. The narrator receives a letter from his wife, who has left him: a warning not to follow her, though she tells him where she is. He sets off for New York, then tracks her to Philadelphia. Outside of Philadelphia he rejoins an old lover and travels with her and her daughter through the Midwest and into Missouri; threatening messages arrive from his wife, then a fake bomb. He leaves for the Southwest; his wife follows him and has him beaten up. He flies to the Northwest; there, at the edge of the Pacific, his confrontation with his wife takes place. Then together they take the bus to Los Angeles to meet John Ford, who explains where they've been.
What's not left out by such a simple reduction of the hero's odyssey is what Handke is doing: with a paranoid wind at their backs, sending his couple across America to retrace the steps taken by Lewis and Clark, by Alexis de Tocqueville, by the forty-niners, by the husband and wife in The Band's "Across the Great Divide" ("Now tell me, hon, what-cha done with the gun?") – to the reader, now, nearly forty years after Short Letter, Long Farewell first appeared, perhaps even the imagined late-nineteenth-century steps of William Blake in Jim Jarmusch's 1995 western Dead Man, with Johnny Depp's hapless Cleveland accountant travelling from Cleveland to the Pacific Northwest to foretold death.
It's this that powers the book – this sense of a quest, a vast historical drama emerging out of a small private drama but never tethered to it. Moment to moment, you can't tell if the hero is searching for his wife, if she is searching for him, or if one or the other or both of them are looking for America, if only because America remains to be discovered, remains a blank space that will give back transformed anything projected upon it, because it is the looking glass that will reflect the true face of whoever is brave enough to face it.
"This is my second day in America... I wonder if I've already changed." Handke's hero has been reading The Great Gatsby, but his Gatsby might well be Superman or the Green Lantern.