Takes an enormously exciting moment and squeezes almost all of the fun out of it.
The Outside Lands almost covers up its vapid climax in the third act with its suspenseful act two and strong setting. Ultimately, however, the novel does not have enough to say and employs an odd point-of-view-shifting narrative device that dulls any excitement it was able to generate. It comes across as an artful attempt to employ all-too-familiar ‘60s signifiers in a new way, but it fails to achieve that goal, with the consequence that it amounts to little more than a pile of clichés scattered across nearly 300 pages.
The Outside Lands tells the story of the Jackson family, a white middle-class clan residing in urban San Francisco in the ‘60s. The adult Jackson children, older sister Jeannie and younger brother Kip, are author Hannah Kohler’s chief interest throughout the novel. Jeannie is something of a dullard who gets trapped in a loveless marriage with an overworked surgeon while Kip is a brainless malcontent with a nose for mischief who decides that joining the Marines is an ideal escape from the city. Jeannie stumbles into a love affair with an underage teenage girl, Lee, who also pulls Jeannie into the margins of the anti-war movement. Kip, meanwhile, learns the hard way that the Marines in the ‘60s are not much fun and his proclivity for breaking the rules is much deadlier in Vietnam. He spends most of The Outside Lands shackled in the brig.
The rich setting is both the novel’s biggest asset and grandest curse. Every story set in ‘60s San Francisco is a priori interesting and worth reading (take it from this professional historian: 1968 was the most interesting year in human history), so that even this tale about the non-charismatic, unintelligent Jackson siblings is able to keep readers turning the pages. But that ’68 momentum can only carry the story so far. Combine the staid characters with Kohler’s touristy approach to the ‘60s—she includes the assassinations of both Kennedys, the Goldwater and Nixon campaigns, the War and anti-war movements, the fall of Saigon and the proliferation of recreational drug use and sexual intercourse as reference points in the story—and the setting becomes as much a burden as a blessing. The reader is presented with history happening but only in a tangential, contrived sort of way.
The second act of The Outside Lands nearly redeems the novel. Jeannie becomes the narrative fulcrum in this section and creates something of a love quadrilateral between her husband, Lee, herself and a grievously injured Marine Corps officer named Tom. Complicating her romantic schizophrenia is her toddler-aged son and her hardcore right-wing mother-in-law, as well as the fact that Tom’s injuries are the result of her brother Kip, a fact that Jeannie knows and Tom does not. As Kohler presents Jeannie’s botched efforts to negotiate this tangle of relationships, she also unearths something fundamental about her protagonist and about the dying social conservatism of the times.
But The Outside Lands ruins the second act’s charms by being more inept in presenting its conclusion than Jeannie was in choosing which lover to favor. The novel fluidly shifts perspective throughout, with each chapter adopting a hybrid of the third-person limited and first-person points-of-view and focusing on a single character. Most chapters are Jeannie or Kip chapters. In the climactic moments, the chapters shift from Jeannie to Tom and back to Jeannie again. The problem with this is that Kohler often gives each “chapter” less than 500 words. After that paucity of plot, there is a sharp page break and a new 400 or 500-word chapter from the other character’s perspective. Sometimes a single Jeannie-Tom interaction will take place over a half-dozen tiny chapters, with a half-dozen breaks that squelch all the suspense and ruin the flow of the moment. It probably seemed like a clever narrative device in the novel’s planning stages, but its execution renders what should be the most exciting moments boring and frustrating to read instead. Unfortunately, that is an analogy for the book as a whole—it takes an enormously exciting moment and squeezes almost all of the fun out of it.