For all of its flash and flourish, “You Shall Know Our Velocity” ultimately comes down to a theme that has been prevalent in English-language fiction at least since the days of Joyce and Wolfe; the self as inescapable prison. Will and Hand, of course, are trapped in their American prejudices and presuppositions, filled with mortal dread at every chance encounter on a dark street in a way they might not be in Chicago. More than that though, it is their own character flaws and the way these flaws reinforce each other when Will and Hand are together that makes their exotic journey somewhat futile. Hand will always be a bit arrogant a condescending. Will will continue to be shy and inside of himself. The name Will is rather ironic, as it is clear that this journey is easily the boldest thing he has ever done.
Hand’s “interruption” makes explicit what the reader may be inclined to suspect anyways. Will depicts himself receiving a beating that would have been fatal without medical help, yet there is no description of this help. His descriptions of Jack are always a bit shady, and the story of the plot to take Jack to Mexico for secret medical treatment is beyond incredulous. But there is also reason to doubt Hand’s narration; how did this underachiever find himself in such an enviable position, with his own private villa, receiving visits from lonely housewives? Hand’s version of the story also exonerates him of quite a lot; the beating, of course, but also his condensation and aloofness.
Besides that inescapability from self, Will and Hand also learn about the inescapability from place; again and again they are exposed to some of the trashier elements of American culture; 80’s music, Hollywood thrillers, etc. If the pervasiveness of American culture, the brevity of their visit to each place, and the fundamental self-absorption of Hand and Will aren’t enough to prevent them from really being in the places that they visit, there are the natives. The people who Hand and Will encounter have mouths to feed and are quite uninterested in helping them to find themselves or immerse themselves in the local spirit. Wherever Will and Hand go then, these two white Americans who let it be known that they have money to throw around will always be in touristland, if not treated better than the locals than certainly treated differently enough to be kept apart.
So in the end we have two men who are incapable of pure experience. Even when they take themselves to the other side of the world their experiences are colored, polluted, by stereotypes (both their own and those of the locals,) internal emotions, and ambiguous pasts. Will, whether the friend of a dead man or not, is clearly mourning something. Perhaps, at twenty six, he realizes that he has missed a critical opportunity to experience and behold with the purity of youth. Though still superficially young, he looks forward to nothing, and has no expectations for happiness, so he drifts.