Harper paper Perennial: 368 pp., $14.99
Billy and Alice are a tripped-out Scott and Zelda, a Jane Austen romance via Hunter S. Thompson, a Romeo and Juliet on the burned-out edge of the baby boom. Billy has no doubts about their shared eternal love, but although Alice is mostly on board, she's got a tendency to marry other men. Billy maintains his insistence that they're meant to be together; believe him and their love is destiny — lose faith and it looks like delusion.
The book soars and scuffles according to the logic of its language rather than plot; it's a quietly masterful work by Charlie Smith, an award-winning poet and novelist. Told in five sections, all nominally from Billy's point of view, "Three Delays" is the story of Billy and Alice over decades, lives intertwined since Billy was a child preacher in midcentury South Florida. Their love — entrenched yet problematic, as inherently synchronous as it is destructive and consuming — is the one thing Billy can count on in a world that's constantly shifting.
That world would shift less if he took fewer drugs.
Billy is in a near-constant altered state. He swallows quaaludes and gets drunk and takes hallucinogens and shoots heroin and smokes pot as casually as starting a car. The rituals of drug culture are absent — no details of scoring or ministrations — drugs are simply part of how he moves through time. Partway through a scene it might be revealed that Billy is stoned — when and how he got that way, and on what, exactly, has gone unmentioned. Sometimes, the only hint that he's addled is that other characters respond to his thoughts — he's so far gone that he can't tell what he thinks from what he says out loud.
Despite his indulgences, Billy has a job that he's good at, writing for a Florida newspaper. Like another fictional newspaperman, Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, he's both empathetic and aghast. "Always, so it seemed to me, if I experienced the true quality of human life I would begin to scream and not stop," Billy explains. The drugs put that true quality at a distance, but he loops to it elliptically, most intensely with Alice. Later, he writes books — about her, of course.
Like the mechanics of drug-taking, most of the details of working and everyday life are stripped from the story. What's here, instead, is the kind of subjective running narrative that once led George Plimpton to call Smith "a young William Faulkner." Although lighter and more plain, Smith's prose sweeps and bends the narrative to its own logic.
When Smith writes, "A sadness entered the bar, or so it seemed, some miasmic cloud of failure and desolation stirred up off the floor by someone passing by on his way to the restroom," Billy fills with emotion and floats off into memory, only barely returning to the moment as a knife fight begins. Many times, locations jump or scenes segue with nothing more than the word "later," the plot following the contours of Billy's consciousness.
Although things do happen in the book — an encounter with thugs on the high seas, wanderings in Mexico, nights in Venice, a kidnapping and, for Billy, jail, more than once — the plot points are tangential to Billy's passion for Alice. She returns it, but her devotion and competence are pocked by a volatile unpredictability, rages and rejection.
Through Billy, Smith thinks of a thousand new ways to describe love, this love, and the newness of metaphor is invigorating. "She was better than jai alai, better than the movies, better, almost, than drugs, and she always had been. I hadn't been able to take my eyes off her since we were six. She grinned, snatching out such a grin I fell back as from a magician pulling doubloons from the atmosphere."
Their ongoing love affair is as unique as it is intense. All couples feint and pull, but these two are cruel as well as kind, prone to violence, bad for each other, perfect for each other.
This fictional relationship, like those in real life, ultimately excludes those not a part of it. There is no effort to seduce the reader; Billy tells us how deeply he knows Alice, but we can't go there with him. Coupled with the unimportant plot and unclear chronology, the refrain of this relationship fails, at times, to carry the book's weight.
Luckily, there is Charlie Smith's engulfing prose, full of surprises and possibility, to lift it up. Which it does.
"I was only 22 and already I wanted to live my whole life over, exactly as it was, not change a thing. For one second there, holding an orange in Venice, I felt so happy to be alive, so happy to be myself, to have done what I had done that I wanted to replay all of it, same style, same gas, over and over. I had never had a feeling like that before, and I haven't had one exactly like it since. Who knows why the sweet moment comes or when it will arrive?"
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