This review by Ruby Bamber (Senior Sales Operations Executive at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.
A 225-page epic long-form poem sounds like a daunting read, but the medium is perfect for this story. Wounded war veteran Walker, returned to North America from Europe, is roaming. Set in four parts between 1948 and 1953 (with the occasional reference to the mid-50s), Robertson’s sweeping epic takes in the glamorous grime of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago as Walker moves between cities, hitching rides where he can and taking it all in.
The period detail comes thick and fast. To use the word atmospheric would be hugely underselling it – The Long Take feels as close to being in 50s America as I’ll ever get. For anyone who has enjoyed the grubby thrill of a classic noir film, or gone on holiday to the States hoping to sit in a dark and faintly squalid bar to watch the world go by, this is very much the tale for you. There are dive bars, road trips, faded hotels, all-night picture houses. All of the mentions of films, studios and actors of the period give this book the old Hollywood vibe that is so at odds with the scores of broken characters Walker encounters.
It highlights the America that is familiar to everyone, the dual reality of a country where everymen sit in picture houses in questionable parts of town to watch the manufactured ‘America’ on film. Robertson’s book is the antithesis of a Hollywood studio film – his is not an America cleaned up and packaged for the masses. The Long Take shows us this perfectly, and, as Walker puts it himself: ‘American cities have no past, no history. Sometimes I think the only American history is on film.’
The narrative is punctuated by Walker’s memories of his time at war, his life previously, and postcards and missives to his friends and family in Nova Scotia, which all add to the scrapbook effect of the work. It feels at points like rifling through someone’s belongings, getting to pore over their diaries and photographs, getting some of your questions answered, but knowing you’ll never quite get to find out the full picture. By contrast, there are passages where you are living completely in Walker’s head.
The time stamps are subtle but effective (price changes at the cinema, tiny inconsequential details) and in 1953, when Walker returns to San Francisco, things have changed. The conversations he has show how people are moving on from the chaos of the years immediately following the war. America is settling and other tensions are rising (a graphic, if fleeting, mention of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks is particularly moving).
The Long Take is like being on an epic road trip, speeding along the American coast and catching intoxicating glimpses of places and people in a country in a period of great change. This book should not be written off for the familiar fear of not ‘getting’ poetry – you would be robbing yourself of a moving and addictive Americana experience. I loved it.