The Disappearance of Jim Sullivan
By Tanguy Viel
(Translated by Clayton McGee)
Dalkey Archive Press — May 2021
ISBN: 9781628973716 — Paperback — 132 pp.
Strip the “Great American novel” down to its essential, deconstructed core. Have the author explain how they’ll reassemble these fragments: stereotypes formed into some characters, tropes threaded together into a plot. Round things out with the overarching theme of the historic disappearance of psychedelic/folk musician Jim Sullivan into the wilds of New Mexico. And somehow, you still end up with a captivating page-turner.
The formulaic nature of popular novel art forms leads to their success. It also allows others to mix things up a bit – to reinvent or subvert. Yet, if everything is so simple as a quick and easy formula, why can’t just anyone pull it all off? The answer of course is that it’s all what the writer does with all those formulaic bits and pieces, from the language to the style to the balances between familiarity and challenging invention.
The Disappearance of Jim Sullivan has a simple meta premise that author Tanguy Viel sets out from the start (or the fictional authorial narrator written by Viel – it’s always a bit unclear in the metaverse.) A French author decides he is tired of writing French novels. He wants to write something with international attraction, broad success. This, of course means, making it set in the American midwest of the ‘everyman’. The author creates a protagonist, Dwayne Koster, and sets things in the heart of the Iron Belt, Detroit. But being French and never having been to Detroit, the author has to make the setting a very barebones, Wikipedia-factoid sort of Detroit. He stylizes Koster as middle-aged, recently divorced, a budding alcoholic, and a man fascinated with Jim Sullivan’s music and mysterious vanishing into the desert night.
Viel then builds up the layers to this Great American Novel, interworking details from Koster’s past with the path he now finds himself on, and the routes open to him. Laying all of these basic conventions of a novel out before the reader, Viel then concocts them into an engaging narrative amid the parodic, meta exercise. And he pulls it off because of his inherent talent for the writing craft.
I read through the novel while listening to Jim Sullivan’s albums, starting with his most famous UFO. It’s an accompaniment I’d recommend. By the end of the novel, Viel takes his story of Dwayne Koster and merges it with Sullivan’s style and the history of Sullivan’s disappearance, paralleling the existential nature of Koster’s journey with the unanswered questions of Sullivan’s.
A big thanks to Dalkey Archive Press and translator Clayton McGee for getting this slice of Americana by way of France to English-speaking audiences. A true international novel achieved.