Review by Charlene Carusounder deez

Under These Stars
By Tony R. Rodriguez
Published 2014 by Beatdom Books
$12.99 paperback ISBN 9780956952585

Under These Stars is a novel by Tony R. Rodriguez that follows a young writer named Sarah as she embarks on a solo road trip across several states after getting in serious trouble at her job. Sarah is conflicted and boozy. She works for an online journal conducting interviews but she has aspirations of becoming a famous and respected writer. Anything but a heroine when we are first introduced to her in an office in San Francisco, she sits in front of her boss,  awaiting his pronouncement of punishment for getting a wildly successful underage author drunk during an interview.

Afterwards, Sarah makes up her mind to drive alone around the country visiting friends and write a memoir about her trip, leaving behind a fragile relationship with a serious young man named Theo. Theo pleads with her not to go on such a long trip without him. He fears it will ruin their relationship. But she leaves anyway, anxious to begin her new adventure, but stops short of breaking up, even though she admits to herself she probably doesn’t love him.
Sarah experiences life like she drinks alcohol, in gluttonous gulps. At first, the result is a lot of throwing up, both literally and virtually, with insipid regurgitations on Facebook, where she is recording her trip. She uploads an endless stream of Instagram pics and posts verbal snapshots, “Jack-In-The-Box is good,” while staying silent on her suspension from work. She counts the number of “likes” each of her posts inspires. She puzzles over which filters to use to edit her pictures. Sarah tells the reader she limits her use of Twitter to sharing her movie reviews in inspired tweets, proudly admitting she has 12,000 followers.

The story spirals in brief scenic chapters punctuated by Facebook posts and philosophic riffs. Rodriguez’ narrative skill is on display as Sarah flits from thought to thought and place to place at a frenetic, fevered, alcohol-soaked pace that mirrors the rapidity with which this reader turned each page. She pours out pages of her memoir. Pours down drinks. Soaks in movies. Forever bar-hopping. The only constant for Sarah is the music. All her travels are propelled by wonderfully chosen songs. She specifies with precision each song and artist and album she plays while driving toward her next destination. It is the only time she seems to listen. She plays the album by The Naked and Famous “Passive Me Aggressive You,” twice, and their single “Youngblood.” She listens to “There’s a Girl,” by Dressy Bessy, and Tennis’ retro sound in the song “South Carolina.”
Rodriguez beautifully renders images of the land to conjure a vision of conflict and tragedy with passages like, “Near the Mexico border, two countries lip-locked in geographical tension.” He crafts unforgettable moments from sentences laced with unexpected verbs as in Sarah’s reaction to the desert landscape, “Farther and farther, I see the land continue to vampire the sparse life out of the scenery and beyond.”

Before long, Sarah’s trip takes her to an unexpected destination, herself. Rodriguez captures in devastating detail the challenges of being a young woman in today’s world through Sarah’s revealing interactions with females from her past. He deftly manages to build the conflict between his characters so that each friend she meets is a puzzle piece: a fractured part of her history, a glimpse of what she might become. Sarah struggles to build a relationship with herself amid the chaos of memories, desires and fears that she previously resisted or denied. Each encounter shakes up Sarah’s deluded sense of self. She begins to perceive something in her life is lacking, but she can’t identify what.

After a drunken, blacked-out night, in circumstances that disturb her, Sarah decides her problem is alcohol. So she takes a detour to Yellowstone National Park, surrounded by the night sky of the title.   She spends time in sober contemplation. Instead of sharing all her thoughts, she tells the reader they need to experience their own private revelations in such a place. Sarah decides to cut her trip short. She has found a new direction.

Using a concept learned in college, Speculative Realism, as her model, she rewrites the second half of her memoir in the language of what if, an experiment in the intersection of philosophy and literature. Through Sarah, Rodriguz explores the interaction between creativity and reality, where the text itself acts on the reader, provoking new actions rather than simply evoking emotional meaning—art that sparks.  The experiment is certainly successful. After finishing the book, the story impelled this middle-aged reader to re-read the novel while playing each carefully catalogued song to accompany the text. A male writer who has created a young female protagonist that makes an older woman want to take a road trip with them both, is what speculative realism in literature must be about. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali: whatever Speculative Realism means, if it’s good, Under These Stars, is that.