I Heart Oklahoma!

Roy Scranton

August 19, 2019 
The following is an excerpt from Roy Scranton's novel, I Heart Oklahoma!. Roy Scranton holds a PhD in English from Princeton and an MA from the New School for Social Research, and teaches in the Department of English at the University of Notre Dame. Scranton is the author of War Porn, We're Doomed. Now What?, and Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, and co-editor of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War.

You lie, changin’ shape, makin’ promises. Get a new skin. Be a man. Be a woman. Start over. Yeah, start over. Wipe the slate clean and sing, sing in my ear like nothin’ matters, walkin’ down a dirt road and the night’s as long as you are, one step after another leavin’ someone I love and you won’t shut up, dust god like memory, wind son rain, once upon a time I mighta got loose a you but now it’s late and every night I lay down to hear you brushin’ on the screen whisperin’ swerve dappled monochrome down in the trees afeared or was it hopin’ in the sudden plunge, your curves in my crotch, your hum in my jaw, like somehow if we’d just go on forever we’d never die.

So there’s this guy and gal drivin’ down the highway and maybe one picked t’other up or maybe they been lovers for years and now, only now, succumbin’ to their feral dreams, can they see who at last they truly are. His name’s Jack and her name’s Jane and maybe they’re alone or maybe they got someone else along, some witness to make it real, some audience, some third sex name Jesse, and they’re cruisin’ Nebraska and Oklahoma and Illinois and Texas and maybe they had good reasons for leavin’, maybe they dropped a string of bodies behind ’em and robbed banks or maybe a dream died or a kid or maybe it’s no more’n the fact that their lives failed to cohere wherever they was livin’, or maybe they think it’s passin’ time, a holiday, maybe they think someday they’ll pull up the exit ramp and come off the road back to the suburbs and their endless hours of windshield starin’, gas-station midnight snacks, state park bathroom grottoes and back-seat sex, trash bag hangin’ off the cigarette lighter, slow spin through the tuner at 2:00 a.m. catchin’ voices like bugs writhin’ in the mind a god, hot air blowin’ through the window, Gideon Bibles, soft shoulders, mergin’ and lanes endin’ right, detours, orange caution loose gravel slow children yielding and no thru trucks, snowcapped mountains, cataract canyons, Ozarks and Ohios and Mississippis and Missouris will all come to a point on the horizon where it’s the end of the line but no, no, you’ll never stop they just think so, but still I pray maybe if I nail you bleedin’ to the page you’ll let me go.


Let us take a simple example. A man who travels by automobile to a distant place chooses his route from the highway maps. Towns, lakes and mountains appear as obstacles to be bypassed. The countryside is shaped and organized by the highway. Numerous signs and posters tell the traveler what to do and think; they even request his attention to the beauties of nature . . . Giant advertisements tell him when to stop and take the pause that refreshes. And all this is indeed for his benefit, safety and comfort; he receives what he wants . . . He will fare best who follows its directions, subordinating his spontaneity to the anonymous wisdom which ordered everything for him.

–Herbert Marcuse


“Reality has no audience—wait, tilt back, get more of the sky.”

“I’ve got the sky. How much sky would you like?”

“I want him framed.”

“He’s framed. Fleet of foot and bearing his caduceus, he juts, chiseled limbs bursting from the façade, veiled in shifts of tattered steam, god of speed framed in blue.”

“Okay. Just keep rolling.” Jim started over. He could feel the flicker, the fortune in the cookie from lunch: Travel will bring you luck. Fuck, oh—“Reality has no audience, the world no eye. We are the warp and woof, the quanta of its waves, the thing itself: deep surface . . . Deep surface. We are the wave . . . Surface. Wave. Wave, surface.” He exhaled sharply. “How’s that sound?”

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“I’m not the writer,” Remy said, running the camera.

Jim turned and looked down the glowing red-eyed stream of fleeing UberATs. “Christ, I hope she says yes.”

“You’re going to pay her, right?”

“Yeah, sure. All artists fucking care about. Worse than Wall Street. You still rolling?”

“Yeah,” Remy said.

“Nexus of roads, speed and space. Only in space do we become substantial, only in time do our lives take on meaning. Can you see yourself seeing? Can you look inside your eye?”

“Are you asking me?”

“No, keep rolling. Can you look inside the eye? Reality has no audience.” Jim turned again and squatted on the sidewalk. Foot traffic split around the two, the click and slap of heel and sole, nowhere stares plugged into screens catching the blaze of towers burning down the West. “How was that? I just made that up. I just riffed off what I was thinking.”

“I’m not the writer. Ask Suzie.”

“She’d say it’s pretentious. She’d say it’s pretentious and what do I know from space and time.”

“Is Carol coming?”

“Carol left ten days ago. Left a half carton of Silk.”

“Oh, Jim. I’m sorry, I—”

“Fuck that. Been a long time coming. Some people can’t fucking roll with the punches, y’know? Can’t fucking adapt, adapt to change. Like fucking monkeys, adapt or die. She wants the old James, the golden days, but it’s all space and time now.”

“That’s nice with the sun going down.”

“You don’t think it’s too baroque?”

“It’s all in the editing. Right now it looks pretty sublime.”

“Sublime,” Jim repeated, tasting it on his tongue. “I want medieval . . . You see that documentary about the bears?”

“Which one?”

“Fucking bears. It’s just adaptation. These fucking polar bears are all gonna die because they have to swim all the fucking way out in the water to eat fish or baby seals or whatever and it’s too far and all the ice is melting. The polar ice cap is melting. Imagine whiteness for miles, collapsing into encroaching black seas. So they have a choice, right, adapt or die, and they’re gonna die because they’re fucking bears. But that’s the difference, see. We’re not bears. We’re like fucking not evolve maybe but whatever, pick up a stick, you know, duh duh duh. Ascend. Go west.”

A bearded wreck swaddled in layers of sweatpant and plastic bag spun off the sidewalk into traffic shaking his paper cup, strips of foil glittering on his newsprint shawl like antimissile chaff. An UberAT swerved, honking, missed by inches. Jim watched, not quite tense but interested, wondering if he’d catch the whack and slam of body and street, hobo skull rebounding off yellow lines, the empty car’s collision sirens keening. He thought to tell Remy to film it but no, wrong beginning. Wrong end. Why they do that, he half thought, on purpose? Or they so far gone past what’s purpose, it isn’t real? Everything meant but barely conscious, rationality of pure instinct. Sure, but which is more human, then, the wreck or the robot car? All secret agents of the brighter hive. Deep surface, Jim thought. That’s good.

Most important was to get free from this sense of cowering slippage.

The man made it across the street and disappeared into the crowd. Another day, another failure to adapt. The smell of ash, charred flesh, and electrical, stone looming over shadowed warrens filled with particulate smoke. History’s drone: a year is as a day.

“Good,” Remy said, looking up from his crouch. “Shall we go?”

“Sure,” Jim said.

Remy shut off the camera and disassembled the setup, unhooking the unit from its tripod mount, unplugging mikes, bagging gear.

“You want a drink?” Jim asked.

“Are you meeting Suzie?”

“Down in the East Village, one of those holdout trash bars from the nineties.”

“I should drop the gear off.”

“Well, if you’re around.”


Down the gulley of worn stoops and crumbling brownstones bopped the gleaming machine, a chrome-detailed hydraulic import blasting Dominican rap, heavy beats in subtonal shudders making her knees vibrate, gut-thudding percussion wired to spat rhymes ending in long vowels and riding trilled errs like fast gears, East Coast style, a little reggaeton, a little islandy. If she was on her game she’d know what there was to know, but she’d been off lately, slippy, and she kept running into her ignorance like it was stalking her, pleading special intimacies. She’d open a new tab on her browser and there’d be this giant asshole, sucking the world inside.

And the solution was this? A field trip? She peeked out her window at the car going by below, the driver’s arm out the window, the depleted afternoon light, brujas and abuelas on the stoops, then turned and looked at Steve the Cat looking back at her from under her bed.

Oh, Steve. She could text Cathy and be fairly certain she’d take okay care. It would be a favor owed, time expensed to Cathy’s self-sniffing crises, but she was reliable. Yet more trauma for the pobrecito gato, already as New York neurotic as the pinched matrons of the parkside forts, those dowagers stumbling from affront to affront, Steve who was already Krazy Kat, who lived under the bed and under the shelves and under the chair, Steve who did not like reggaeton.

This, though, here, right here, was what she loved, or so she told herself: the noise, the hum and thump, she never even had to put on music. There were those who needed quiet, to be wrapped in the numb hush of absorbed mind, but that was never Suzie’s bag: she wrote in cafés, on the subway, in traffic, she wrote in the chatter of crossed wires, snatching bits of language and turning phrases from the air, pulling the true speech of men from the mouths of baristas, scripting it verbatim into fiction—she needed noise and pulse, tweets and hot takes—she thought herself a creature with antennae, a flesh-and-metal receiver, a time-traveling anthropologist making field recordings of the oversoul.

She drank her tea and looked at the screen. This, though . . . maybe not such a good idea.

It took about a day to get overwhelmed with sublet responses. She’d picked her fave by noon, a Finnish grad student researching American ethnonationalism. Suzie worried: Helsinki was a city, sure, but with reindeer, or without? Would Sinikka be bereft out here among the Dominicans and spend the first week huddled indoors, terrified of going out, her only sight of the city the peaks of its jagged skyline: the Chrysler and broken Empire, the more recent arrivistes at 432 Park and One57, the black mass of Trump Tower? I need to give her the address of the bodega, Suzie thought. For some reason the UberATs always got the street wrong. So there was that, and utilities, work, clear the calendar. Artforum owed her a check. Steve the Cat. Call Cathy.

Out is back, away is forward. Life’s not a luge but a gyre.

All expenses, per diem, her own room, plus 2500 up front and the same at the end, and cash, too, not even PayBits. A JetBlue ticket back from LA. Contractually obliged to two pages of dialogue each day on the road, plus forty pages beforehand to get them going, maybe a bonus for more. They’d share print rights, and she’d get an extra commission for any catalog accompanying the eventual show, if such a show were to happen. One-month commitment, though the plan was eighteen days, twenty max. It wasn’t much, except it was, and it had potential, visibility, it could be—what?—not fun, what’s fun? Fun was no longer a criterion, especially not with guys like Jim.

She could feel Steve watching her, prescient in his cat cynicism, already knowing she’d abandon him to her sublet’s Finno-Ugric ministrations, already too disappointed to be sad, his Cheshire eyes gliding closed with shamed chagrin at the dumb vigor of the human species, the flailing wreckage these primates make of their lives.

Happy face. Out is back, away is forward. Life’s not a luge but a gyre. That’s the cost of something better than nine-to-five, anyway, the price of what you wanted, what you want, what did you want? Maybe you should have thought about that before the party ended, the lights dim in the dawn and the edge cutting back in through the haze you wallowed in, fondled by some jerk with too much bling and a bad, expensive haircut, the waves in the distance beyond the window you can’t hear, rolling silently, the dawn silent, world silent, life silent and trapped in the spent mess of money, this jerk snuffling your hair, groping, waves rolling, was that what you’d had in mind? The lights so bright . . . Yet that wasn’t even the nadir, tbh, especially once the bloom came off the barely legal, harder to maintain target weight, knowing too much to convincingly match the fresh new crop’s blasted naïveté, as powders and pills came to occupy center mind, the account of a day tracked in altered states, so long until the next hit, so long, so long, but this one is the moment she’s fixed on, fooling around with the heir to the fortune on his island, after the party, him grunting something Slavic, her putting herself through her paces.

Then there was a marriage. Now there’s this.

She took a drink of tea. So long ago she counts it in lifetimes. What was important now was to focus on the way forward, do the work, put sentences together on pages and words in the mouths of imaginary people. Some days, though, she couldn’t quite remember why this was so, crowded on the train watching the Hulu posters flicker, shoulders stooping, runway poise collapsing into the ruins of a former you, she couldn’t really say what it was she thought she was doing, this bullshit sitting in classrooms listening to people talk, talk, talk. What a flagrant waste of human possibility.

Whatever. You gotta do something. When you’re done maybe go out West and write a pilot. There are worse ways to make a living. Most important was to get free from this sense of cowering slippage, this feeling of having been pummeled by life, of looking for somewhere to ride out imminent storms. To find that thing, whatever they call it, where people look forward to stuff.

So the money’s not great, but it’s good enough, and it would be kind of like a vacation and maybe be a chance to get perspective, see the “big picture,” visit that fantasyland called America, and maybe think things through in the slack hours spent rolling over interstate blacktop, maybe some feeling of freedom, a chance to wriggle out of the gray muck that lived inside, that shit her therapist called the past.

And Jim, she thought: Friend or foe? Was his fervor a phase, or a transition?

She shook her head, glancing at her pack of Parliaments silent on the windowsill. Not yet, she thought. Do your twenty lines.

Start over.


From I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton. Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Soho Press. Copyright © 2019 by Roy Scranton. 

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