American Interior, or to give it its full title, American Interior: The quixotic journey of John Evans, his search for a lost tribe and how, fulled by fantasy and (possibly) booze, he accidentally annexed a third of North America is the first book by musician/Super Furry Animals frontman, Gruff Rhys.
‘In 1792 John Evans, a 22-year-old farmhand and weaver from the village of Waunfawr in the mountains of Snowdonia, Wales, responded to a plea from the great Welsh cultural mischief-maker Iolo Morganwg to settle, for once and all time, the quandary of whether there was indeed a tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans still walking the Great Plains, descendants of Prince Madog, who was widely believed (especially by Welsh historical revisionists) to have discovered America in 1170.’
As a child, Rhys’ father told him and his siblings that apart from them, ‘he and his cousin Mary Fôn were Evans’ only living relatives’. When Rhys’ father died he was writing a lecture on Evans. His mantle was taking up by Rhys’ brother, Dafydd, an academic, and then Gruff decided he wanted to verify the tales he had heard about this Welsh adventurer. He set about booking tour dates across the same path that Evans would have taken so he could investigate the journey, meeting academics, historians and local people.
The book tracks two journeys then, that of John Evans in the late eighteenth century and Rhys’ parallel journey in the early twenty-first century. However, Evans does actually take part in both journeys, as Rhys doesn’t leave until a friend has created a three-foot tall, felt version of Evans to accompany him.
Rhys writes about Evans’ journey in the context of the time, filling in historical and political background, characters that might be unfamiliar to the reader, and the geographical landscape of eighteenth-century America. His present day travels include comments about the tour; the songs he’s writing about Evans as his journey progresses, and the encounters he has with people along the way – some pre-arranged, others by happenstance. Some of the highlights of the book are the happenstance meetings, but there are also some insightful moments when Rhys meets people from First Nations tribes. He delves into their history, concentrating particularly on their treatment by American settlers and how it has affected their way of life. Of course, he finds some parallels here with the Welsh, particularly in the way their language could die out.
The book’s not all serious though. It’s divided into three ‘acts’, each of which begins with a cast of principal characters. This suggests, perhaps, that Rhys isn’t taking Evans’ story entirely seriously – it is certainly dramatic, however, even stripped to the bones of the tale.
It’s also told with humour, particularly Rhys’ journey in which John Evans the avatar plays a larger role than we might expect. In one memorable scene, John is allowed to drive the truck they are travelling in:
‘We screech out of what you could describe as the village green, in front of the bell tower, but as John attempts the first right turn he doesn’t see the street sign and crashes into it. I jump out to assess any damage, but before I can make out anything in these last minutes of dusk, John commands in a booming voice I haven’t heard before, ‘Get back into the chariot, NOW!’ He also barks out a tirade of frankly unprintable coarse adjectives in his roughest Welsh, and I begin to understand his urgency.’
I suspect ‘the degree of exaggeration’ which John Evans indulged in has rubbed off on his ancestor.
If I were to have a complaint about the book, it’s a minor, typographical one. The typography has, occasionally, been played with. In some instances, it’s fairly interesting – one speaker’s comments flow like the Mississippi, says Rhys, and so he sets it out as such on the page – but others like Bright Eyes musician, Conor Oberst’s comments, are laid on their side. Why? Because they run at a tangent to Rhys’? Because he doesn’t agree with them? The reason seems unclear and so the format seems unnecessary. It’s a quibble, however, and doesn’t detract for long.
Any Cop?: Books written by those who are musicians first and foremost are often excruciatingly bad. Thankfully, Rhys joins the list of those can write long-form prose. American Interior brings a lesser-known story to a wider audience in engaging, thoughtful and sometimes humorous prose.