Scott Bradfield writes about America like the part-time expat he is. Living half in London, half in the United States, Bradfield keeps a wary distance from his homeland, employing his outcast narrators to do his dirty work: sneaking into suburban neighborhoods and peering into bedroom windows just to reaffirm that a home is nothing but nails and wood. It makes for a creepy reading experience.
His first novel, The History of Luminous Motion (1989), chronicled life on the road as observed through the untamed imagination of an adolescent boy, wandering with his mother through a series of collapsing interpersonal relationships. A sparkling prose belied the grim circumstances.
More than twenty years later, Bradfield's fifth novel, The People Who Watched Her Pass By, is a yet bleaker, less luminous take on itinerancy in contemporary America. Bradfield's landscape is one of sheds, basements, and the ephemeral habits of the homeless: gas stations, diners, towns along freeways. The protagonist is the three-year-old Salome (Sal for short), alone and unable to fend for herself as she is abducted from her family, abandoned, abused, and passed from one adult to another, each one beset by neuroses, each unable to give a small girl the selfless love she needs. Sal spends her time with "Daddy," her innocuous abductor, as well as a depressed landlord, a Laundromat proprietor, a psychiatrist, and a pedophile known as Grandma, whose eyes Sal describes as looking "as if someone had inserted a flashlight through cloth flaps in the back of her head."
Bradfield maintains a tone that is drama-free, even clinical. "They didn't just show you their tears," he writes of Sal's many temporary parents (some legal, some not), "they spilled them all over you, wiping their snotty faces on your clean pink dress. Wrapping you up in their moisture as if they could take you into themselves, into that special place where they were looking forward to you going away."
Sal lumps people together in this "they" way, applying broad strokes to the pariahs around her. She empathizes only with a pat on the back, never a full-body hug, and she becomes sealed off from these monsters, developing a "secret taste for herself." It's probably the right attitude for a child raised by human wolves, and Bradfield evokes her state of mind with cold, precise prose, so we, too, feel nothing for her depraved minders.
Like his farce What's Wrong with America (1994), in which a woman kills her husband so she can be free to watch daytime TV, The People Who Watched Her Pass By is uninterested in superficial compassion. To follow Sal on her wanderings is to drive straight into the Zen void at the heart of the classic road novel. "The future keeps getting smaller every day," Bradfield writes. "And it's taking us with it." Who wants to come along?