(City Point Press, 2022)
Dreamland Court presents a complex range of human experience and desire through vernacular soundings. Speech drives the novel much as in Cormac McCarthy’s most recent works, The Passenger and Stella Maris. But Dale Herd’s maximalist prose stacks voice on voice, creating a sense of overlapping energy across the page. In a way, this book is more like an epic poem than a novel, derived from the monologues of men and women searching for the meaning to the actions of their lives, making sense, or not, of experience at the often-overlooked extremes of the so-called American Dream.
Located in early 1980s California and Nevada, and mostly set in the Los Angeles Basin, Herd’s writing, like McCarthy’s, enters noirish atmospheres. But there’s humor present in Dreamland Court’s underworld of petty thieves, drug dealers, strippers, transients, and prisoners. Johnny Dalton, just released from prison, finds his wife, Jacqueline Louise Dalton (Jackie) in an erotic relationship with one of his good friends, Carson E. Cool. The novel’s forceful momentum explores Johnny’s mixed devotion and anger toward Jackie and Carson, and his desire to resume their marriage and family (Johnny and Jackie have two young children, ages eight and three). But he makes dumb choices, settling into a petty criminal underworld he doesn’t really stand a chance in. When the police find him with a teenaged girl at a party, he’s sent back to jail. But this narrative structure lies under a prominent poetic presentation of experience and place brought out by voice in Herd’s exploration of the American vernacular. As a writer, he is interested in the vulnerable circumstances of people and how they respond to the pressures of everyday experience in the stories they tell. His writing refuses to perform for popular consumption, showing readers an American underbelly that is in rich refusal of middle-class values. Instead, desire drives the book.
Jackie acknowledges eros as a prime concern in the opening pages: “I came, he came, it came, we both came, everything came, the whole car came, the whole car was surrounded by our come and I was so happy and so glad to be part of this boy who had given me this.” The work of women, of working women, of women rough on the edges of cities overlooked and overworked is where we’re at as readers. Jackie works at the Starlight Dance Palace and Gentlemen’s Club, where she waits tables and dances, and occasionally has sex with customers. Her desire is expansive but practical, if also emergent through forms of past sexual traumas. “What would you do?” she asks. “Say your old man was gone and you found yourself with someone new. And say, without you meaning to, something good happened, something really, really good, and you really couldn’t break it off, even though your old man was still your old man; what about that?” Jackie’s frank admission contributes to stark realities. “I have never met one person whose sex life is in apple pie order,” she says.
As readers, we piece the story together by way of how characters reveal their ambitions. Johnny is direct, saying, “All’s I wanted was for her to say, ‘I’m sorry, Baby. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He parodies the commercialization of self that is often associated with the clinical jargon of social systems. “Number one,” he says, “don’t be paranoid—just flow with the now. Number two: don’t wish for things. Wishing means you are not this, not that—which is all a weakness. Everything I am right now is all I need to be.” The range of feeling, from urgent sexual desire to sorrow, gives Dreamland Court its pleasure and its power. Herd urges sympathy for his characters despite the cliches of their speech or the limitations to how words can come into association with the kinds of living his outcast figures see themselves in. Johnny and Jackie connect fiction to a larger social reality that contemporary media and the mainstream fiction industry often overlook, or refuse to acknowledge with care. From the violent banality of prison, Johnny addresses Jackie, saying;
I am so sick of this sorrow. My words are not me. I’ve always looked to run away from things, afraid I would run out on you, afraid you would run out on me. My feelings are pushed beyond what is real. My thoughts rebound inside my head and become more real than any reality I know. The best thing to do is keep smiling, keep calm, show no weakness.
The novel’s four main sections are indicated by seasonal titles: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer. By the end, Johnny’s violence erupts over Jackie, but it’s Carson who suffers the gunshot wound that lands Johnny back in jail. Writing from 8 Block, Level 4, Soledad Prison Road, Johnny acknowledges a third child with Jackie. “I’m totally looking forward to this one,” he says, “and will be on my best behavior, ’n will make everything absolutely correcto this time, you can count on that.” This is said, though, by someone with the following psychological summation, revealed earlier in the novel: “Results indicate asocial tendencies and likelihood of actions unwise and self-defeating. Data also indicates sexual predation syndrome overlying partial lack of adequate masculine identity.” It’s hard to give a sense of the range of characters Herd explores—family members, lovers, friends, work associates—all in adjacent lives that connect to Jackie, who is really the heroine, the one person working through domestic abuse and workplace violence to come to terms with herself and Johnny. It’s uncertain where it all goes, and that’s the point. Or it’s all too certain, depending on how readers respond to institutional reports delivered occasionally throughout the book.
Language, self, emotion, reality. These areas of expression and sensation confirm Herd’s desire to explore what’s possible in prose fiction without falling back on popular artifice. His art can be seen in a quickness of insight flashing between moments of utterance. I hear in Dreamland Court a desire through discrete characters to determine for themselves the answers to ancient questions: What is a good life? How do I know myself and those around me? What are the limits of pleasure and how do I love? How do words, thoughts, and actions accumulate to determine or reveal who I am? The other side of it, though, can seem all too determinate. Are these people locked into social constraints and psychological traumas that are too tightly wound to escape? Herd’s complex exploration of these problems presents a reality from a distinct time and place in the American West, and it continues to resonate across the years over landscapes embarrassed by neoliberal domination of everyday lives, reducing life and appetite to mere economic exchanges. The book is a gift, one that is easy to open and hard to put down.
Dale Herd has been close to poets, earning praises from Allen Ginsberg and Edward Dorn, among others. And like poet Lewis MacAdams’s exploration of the Los Angeles River in his multi-part epic, The River, Herd looks at how ways of life play out in the geographic circumstances of a particular bioregion. I also think of Herd’s close proximity to the late short story writer Lucia Berlin, whose exemplary work similarly focused on cultural outsiders and social misfits, with many of her stories set in California. But Herd’s use of the monologue as his foundational form gives readers a sense of place and time through a variance of human voice. In doing so, we find elements of place peripherally. He shows the drama of lives in submission or refusal to circumstance, searching for direction and hope.