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Review: Under the Same Stars by Tim Lott



Highlights: Rich literary allusions, an unflinching profile of a modern divided family, and canny reflections on the cultural gulf between England and America.
Synopsis: English brothers Carson and Salinger Nash take a road trip from Louisiana to New Mexico to see their dying father one last time. The drive, predictably, turns into a comedy of errors.



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A strong psychological portrait of two very different brothers and their estranged father, and an incisive and often funny look at Middle America through the eyes of a foreign visitor.


The sometimes superficial glance at American stereotypes, some unlikable characters, and a cringingly overt narrative debt. (I don’t much like the title, either.)

Posted July 29, 2013 by

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John Steinbeck in 1962 (Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

John Steinbeck in 1962 (Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

Somewhere between the high culture of the Cain and Abel story (via both Genesis and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden) and the low culture of a buddy road trip flick lies Under the Same Stars by Tim Lott. Despite the cheesy title and the occasionally facile observations about modern America, it’s a strong psychological portrait of two very different brothers and their estranged father.

Salinger Nash and his older brother Carson (named after their father’s favorite American authors, the less obvious one being Carson McCullers) were brought up near London by a longsuffering housewife and a father who left for America when they were 10 and 14 to marry another woman. Salinger stayed in England, as a starving and occasionally mentally ill artist; Carson followed in his father’s footsteps, marrying an American woman and moving out to New Orleans to enjoy the good life in the land of the free.

(Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

(Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

The story opens in the fall of 2008, when Carson relays the news that their father is gravely ill and he wants Salinger to come with him to visit Henry before it’s too late. Salinger reluctantly agrees and the two begin a road trip from Louisiana to New Mexico that, predictably, turns into a comedy of errors. When Salinger loses the keys to Carson’s beloved Lexus and it’s stolen, they have to make it the rest of the way to Las Cruces on a rented motorcycle.

They meet a stereotypical assortment of fat, unpleasant Americans, who all react to Salinger’s metrosexual London persona with ridicule. Policeman Wendell Valentine is perhaps the least objectionable of these odious boors. In his disgust at the crudeness and ignorance of the Americans he meets, Salinger echoes classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century observations of America from European authors such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Fanny and Anthony Trollope, and Charles Dickens. His opinion of America recovers slightly when he learns of Barack Obama’s election, but he remains ambivalent about the place his father and brother have come to call home. My favorite jab at humorless American bureaucracy was the (fortunately, made-up) sign in the immigration area at Houston airport: “Any inappropriate jokes may result in your arrest.”

US Route 54 in New Mexico (Photo credit: ErgoSum88 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

US Route 54 in New Mexico (Photo credit: ErgoSum88 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

As is often the case with such quest narratives, there is no perfect closure to be found; when the brothers meet their father again for the first time in 30 years, they are all their worst selves – prickly, prideful, and reluctant to admit to regrets or mistakes. Their father dies the next day in their Texas hotel, and Salinger feels none the wiser about his childhood and why his father left. Henry thought of America as “a country where loneliness had grandeur” but told his sons that “Bringing up kids is the price you pay for keeping the loneliness at bay.” Indeed, both brothers are on the brink of becoming fathers themselves, a decision that Lott seems to think of as a means of combating the essential emptiness of life. In a world where “everyone’s alone and nothing makes sense and death makes everything small” (as Salinger explains his discontent), raising children is counter to the current of entropy and despair.

I couldn’t decide if the novel was ultimately trite or profound. Some of Salinger’s thoughts seem like pointless clichés, even if they are true:

  • “I can’t find a story that fits, I guess.”
  • “He wondered what it was his brother wanted from this journey. He wondered what he himself wanted.”
  • “Throwing the schedule out of whack is what this whole trip is about…It’s about doing things you don’t normally do. Trying things we don’t normally try…this is adventure – being open to it all.”
  • “Perhaps forgiveness was not a choice. Perhaps it was something that happened to you. Or failed to happen to you, whichever was the case.”

And yet I warmed to this story of two brothers and their journey, even though Lott lacks subtlety in his portrayal of Americans – I can hardly think of a single American character who isn’t horrible or fake – and the Cain and Abel parallel would have been better left as a quiet undertone rather than an explicitly detailed connection.

"Cain Kills Abel," c. 1600, by Bartolomeo Manfredi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Cain Kills Abel,” c. 1600, by Bartolomeo Manfredi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, the desperation to recreate the myth of the first brothers requires Lott to step outside the book’s normal chronology: one chapter is a flashback to the day in 1972 when Carson, jealous that his father loved Salinger’s childish paintings but not his painstakingly assembled model airplanes, beat Salinger so badly with a cricket bat that he had to be rushed to hospital. The primal murder element of the myth is then re-enacted on the road trip when Carson hits a stray dog with the Lexus and has to finish it off by bashing its head in with a rock. Despite his enthusiastic appropriation of the American dream and the American God, Carson is a troubling character with a hidden well of violence.

I didn’t take to Salinger as a main character or as a vantage point onto America. Beneath his cynicism is a drug-numbed depression, and beneath that there isn’t much at all. However, I can understand his relief on leaving America – that wonderful, horrible place full of overwhelming contradictions and disappointments – and getting back home: “He breathed in England and felt an unexpected pang of love for it. Its smallness, its oddness, its banality, its quiet kindness, its proud philistinism.”

Lest you think I’ve only noted negative things about the novel – the superficial glance at American stereotypes, the unlikable characters, the cringingly overt narrative debt – let me reassure you that I do like it. It works particularly well as a revival of the road trip genre, rich with literary allusions; as a portrait of a modern divided family; as a reflection on the cultural gulf between England and America. Lott is an accomplished writer, one from whom I’d like to read more, even if the execution of his aims here is ever so slightly off.

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Rebecca Foster

An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing.


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