Conception, Confusion and the Counsel of Rock and Roll:
A Review of Constance Squires’ Along the Watchtower
(New York: Riverhead Books, 2011, 308 pages, paper)
More than a few times it has been suggested, somewhat seriously, that rock and roll music brought down the Iron Curtain, rather than geopolitics supported by western military might. The extent that such a claim can be measured is obviously uncertain, though it is fun to speculate this chapter of the enduring battle of spirit versus material. The timeframe of Cold War politics occurs simultaneously with the burgeoning pop cultural phenomenon of rock music. Obviously many of the individuals living under the tension of superpowers intent on shaping the face of the world were also those who were often excited, inspired and/or consoled by the prominence of rock music during this time.
Such a character is Lucinda, the coming-of-age protagonist in Constance Squires’ new novel Along the Watchtower (borrowing a Bob Dylan phrase). Squires’ character is closely connected to important world events because she is the daughter Army Major Jack Collins, and she lives on base in Germany, a converted Nazi barrack.
The Recurring motif of rock music (numerous songs and artists are referenced throughout the book) functions as an indicative setting of the vigorous, aggressive, changing times, but also as a personal counselor that keeps Lucinda comforted, even sane, as she endures the mixed messages from her parents and the place they inhabit, the cause to which they have been assigned. Her father resembles the military culture for which he works: bristling, rationalizing his own personal aggression, suggesting a utilitarian view of reality that periodically allows for personal indulgences beyond military and/or ethical protocol since he can justify his agency of the greater good. His daughter, however, is not so convinced.
I like how the story recognizes the greater political (and counter social) context while placing the military within the whims of these almost unmanageable forces. Even more specifically, Squires draws the readers’ focus closely to the interior of a particular family, the tension between daughter and mother and father. Caught between her father’s infidelity to her mother, and her mother’s refracted distance, Lucinda spins through the foreign context she has inherited wandering and wondering, music being one of her few constants that mirrors her ever-sharpening powers of observation and intensifying conclusions about her world, her family and most important, herself. She vacillates between various suspicious characters, gaining and losing something of herself with each encounter, finally finding her stride as a unique, aware individual. In this sense Along the Watchtower successfully follows the standard bildungsroman as it posits a suspicious protagonist who, as the lyrics of Dylan’s song suggest, seeks to find out her fate, to determine whether or not life is more than a bad joke.
Reading this novel, I am reminded that the real fight is always the internal war we fight to establish identity, to confirm our developing view of reality, to clarify our choices and to pass the resulting tests to stand strong, even if alone, amidst the competing and confusing views. Personal identity is always the foremost battle we must fight, and Squires does a terrific job of depicting that formative battle within Lucinda amidst others who for varying reasons fail to win their own personal cold wars.
Set against the potential falling of the Berlin Wall, in this story, walls come down, but the freedom that results demands attention to personal development. Psychologists often link freedom with anxiety, and in this novel, Lucinda’s struggle toward freedom, toward authentic being is hard-won. You will celebrate her personal awakenings (triumph is too strong of a word, she is fragile) even as you consider the motive and means through which she succeeds.
Lucinda grows and the novel moves through time, eventually foreshadowing the contemporary American military experiences to come to the Middle East. Skillfully (and necessarily) Squires avoids political diatribe; rather she keeps us centered on Lucinda’s emerging heart. This is especially evident in Lucinda’s desire to understand her father’s origins and eventually to recover the symbol of his roots. The family farmhouse, now overgrown and lacking the romantic appeal Lucinda had first imagined, nonetheless informs her growing sense of self as she understands something specific about her father. The scenes of the house offer a nice parallel of ghostly haunts: a former Nazi barrack in Germany and a rundown, abandoned homestead in north Texas. Lucinda’s journey with her father to his original home confirms the human paradox that none of us can really ever ignore: we identify closely with those whom we distrust, fear, or even disdain. Their power to shape us, if not beyond our control, certainly is camouflaged keeping us guessing for longer than we’d like.
The story ends with Lucinda coming “home” to an Oklahoma landscape, specifically to the very place of her conception, near Fort Sill where her father was first stationed in his career. I like how the story gravitates at this point, the emphasis shifting from confusion to clarity in the great outdoors of the Wichita Mountains. This ecocritically-minded reviewer can’t help but smile upon noticing the movement of the story from the haunted, artificial, temporary, constructed left-over German barracks from WWII to the haunted, eternal, natural Wichita Mountains. Though Fort Sill intrudes upon a good portion of this rugged landscape, even American military prowess cannot erase the mysticism felt there. And here, on this rock, Lucinda is told by her father, is the place of her conception. Lucinda’s very being is paradoxical: homeless in one sense, a latchkey as a result of a technological, dehumanizing military institution, but also she is eternal, forever at home with the timeless wind blowing over the magnetic rocks that allure freshly enlisted men with their young loves, the nature that not only forms us, but truly spawns us.
Lucinda’s authenticity becomes pronounced in this scene. A suggestion of the mystical separates her from the prosaic of forced conformity in the name of a political agenda. Like the holy vibes of Christendom, this rock of Lucinda’s conception becomes sacred. Her return to this point frames her seeking spirit, even as it confirms her interior longing as something more than merely physical. Not unlike The New Testament’s confused but determined St. Peter, she becomes one who transcends the vulgarity of our existence, pointing us beyond the physical. Like the freedom promised within the newfound music of her youth, the energy behind the score, the spirit of the thing discovered in moments of youthful contemplation, Lucinda invites us to consider her pilgrimage as a paradigm for freedom that finally overcomes the extremes of a horrifying Nazi-imposed order on one hand and the superficial, artificial aimless wandering on the other.
Reviewed by Ken Hada, Editor-at-Large