A New Jersey gallery owner accompanies a traveling salesman on an impressionistic, campy circumnavigation of the South in Sher’s follow-up to Gentlemen of Space (2003).
Milton Menger is a strange man who speaks in double negatives, digressing frequently on art, metaphysics, dreams and history. His decision to come to the aid of Singer Sewing Company representative Charley Trembleman, an ex-painter whose hands have been burned in a motel fire, isn’t purely altruistic; Menger is fleeing his estranged wife and a personal darkness that lurks in the margins of his narrative. The pair stop off in sewing-machine stores, small-town bars, art museums and seedy motels. They encounter oracles and sirens: an old man who divines Civil War artifacts with his metal detector, a sexy but sinister fellow Singer Sewing Company agent who pursues them across the South. Terrible things happen to the people around Menger, but he remains clinical, obsessed with the specters of a Civil War–era painter and the Singer Company’s founder, Isaac Singer. Menger is hyperaware that mass production and its mechanisms (sewing machines, guns, automobiles) have forever changed the world; he is haunted by hidden patterns and metaphors. The narrative’s appeal lies in its characters’ obsessions, phobias and omissions; Menger and Trembleman are fugitives from change who seek refuge in transitory places and in lofty conversations conducted along forgotten miles of Southern highway. After a terrible accident brings to surface their sociopathic tendencies, they become wanted men on a hallucinatory, nightmarish flight that circles cruelly back on its origin. Much as Menger tries to avoid the truth, through art and through his tendency to collect others’ experience at the expense of his own, he will ultimately come face-to-face with his own, incontrovertible essence. Character is destiny and destiny is unavoidable. By the lights of sewing machines and motel fires, on the screens of unplugged televisions that display mysterious shows, Menger begins to discern the truth behind his own elaborately constructed mythology and the arsonist’s secret identity.
Elliptical, unsettling and strangely fascinating.