I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton

Legendary teenaged serial killers, the era of Trump and three dysfunctional artists combine in a phantasmagoric road trip across the United States in this strange, lively novel.

Roy Scranton (Learning to Die in the Anthropocene) flings an exceptionally odd, of-the-moment novel at Trump’s America with I Heart Oklahoma!, a fever-dream road trip featuring three shapeshifting central characters. Jim is a nonconformist bad-boy filmmaker out to record contemporary Americana with the help of his regular cameraperson, Remy. He hires Suzie to write his script, two pages a day as they drive the country in a lime-green 1971 Plymouth: “You could cram a Girl Scout troop in that trunk,” Jim brags, and only a few pages into his story, the reader believes he just might. Suzie is skeptical of the whole thing, and pretty repelled by Jim personally, but she needs the money, and wasn’t doing much else with her New York City apartment but feeding Steve the Cat. “She doesn’t take reality as it comes, but pumps it through a machine in her head that spits it out as stories she can control.” She sublets, and the eccentric threesome hits the road.

Early on, the novel reads as a coherent story: tensions hover at barely manageable levels between the prickly, offensive Jim, impatient Suzie and Remy, who aims to please and therefore displeases Suzie, who wants an ally against their shared boss, and maybe wants to sleep with Remy. Sex and violence are constant undercurrents in the Plymouth as in the country and culture they navigate, making fun and satirizing, for example in a memorable scene starring Suzie in a wedding dress moving in slow motion through the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. After one member of the team abandons the others, the narrative turns decidedly hallucinatory. The main characters morph into simulacra named Jack, Jane and Jesse (and eventually Jesse II), with Remy/Jesse’s pronouns turning gender-neutral. They are joined by Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Caitlyn Jenner, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump and others. Among the book’s recurring cultural reference points are Caril Ann Fugate and Charlie Starkweather (who inspired Natural Born Killers).

Under the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, Tom Waits, Walt Whitman and others (according to his acknowledgements), Scranton loops and wheels through states of varying lucidity, sometimes employing a stream-of-consciousness prose style and sometimes more straightforward storytelling. “Bleach sun shuddering humid over endless yellow-sprouting cornfields, low green rows of soy, off-white box architecture, strip malls and highways, highways and parking lots, parking lots brilliant with the shine of two hundred sixty million gas-powered combustion-engine personal-transit devices….” This novel of sex, violence, apathy, despair and art offers a bizarre, lightning-paced excursion through the present. For those readers on board with its wild, winding style, I Heart Oklahoma! incisively parodies a weird time to be alive.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 seemingly drug-addled meanderings.

(Not for me personally.)

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