THOSE WHO BLINK by William Mills (Louisiana State University: $14.95; 177 pp.)
Strangers who do not know Louisiana seem to suppose that it exists in tension between the poles of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street and miasmal reptile-infested swamps. Somewhere along that stress-line lie the home of jazz, Creole and Cajun cooking, and a brand of Gonzo politics initiated by Huey Long in the 1920s, surviving in tumultuous continuity up to the present.
William Mills’ first novel evokes Louisiana as a spiritual frontier between agrarian past, petroleum present and technological future; between duty-burdened redneck Protestant North Louisiana and easy-going Latin Catholic South; between the dauntless swagger of rural Texas and the softer unrelieved defiance of rural Mississippi.
Country Louisiana, between Caddo Parish in the northwest and Tangapahoa Parish in the southeast is all that and more. Mills knows the feel and the smell and the sound of them all and has managed to yoke them violently together in his first novel.
Farley Stokes, working nights in a Baton Rouge petrochemical plant and hating it, stands in the midst of those tensions. His present is meaningless; he has no future worth considering, and the recollection of his dead grandfather’s vacant place out in the Parishes sets him to wondering (like a century’s worth of displaced rural Southerners before him) if the ennui and emptiness of late-20th-Century industrialized city life isn’t a bad dream that 50 miles on a blacktop road and 10 more on dirt will carry him away from.
For better or worse, he meets Bo Simmons who lives close to his grandfather’s old place. Simmons, union organizer and enforcer, ex-convict and general manipulator, quickly takes on the lineaments of Ahab on dry land. He eases Farley’s way into the country, making it possible for him to get a small herd of cattle, meet the people who possess (and are possessed) by the land, learn the old ways of cowboying and fox-hunting (not quite British style), of drinking in roadhouses and evoking at least the feeling if not the substance of what life was like before we invented concrete and fell in love with it.
But free trips to the past, to ways of life that are fading even as we speak of them, are as rare as free lunches, and the power of “Those Who Blink” resides in the portrayal of Farley’s learning the material and spiritual coat of the journey--and paying it. As Ahab carried his crew past the bourn of sanity, so Simmons draws Stokes out to the edge of his endurance, evoking dreams and mysteries until death ends the conjuring.
Billy Mills and I were classmates more than 30 years ago, and we still share the same Louisiana in our work. Perhaps the formality of a book review may be bent enough for me to say that it is an unusual and considerable pleasure to read the work of an old friend which reveals what Allen Tate called “knowledge carried to the heart.”