Gnarly, Loopy, but Full of Heart : WESTERN SWING<i> by Tim Sandlin (Henry Holt: $18.95; 372 pp.) </i>

<i> McCoy's most recent novel is "Summertime" (Simon & Schuster/Poseidon; Washington Square Press, paper). </i>

“This one’s gnarly,” says a minor character in “Western Swing,” of her loopy artwork. If not for the honest spirit of the book, so might readers conclude of the pileup of loco events in Tim Sandlin’s second novel. (“Sex and Sunsets” is his first.) Don’t trust an old flame with your daughter here, and watch out for the shooting: It may or may not be in the buffoonish Old West fashion. Death touches down like a mean twister, fast and senseless. Scheming and dreaming abound in the haywire lives of this country-Western set. It’s a stampede that Sandlin just manages to corral: The story gallops, meanwhile a sense of control, of cool authority, of pattern--and the author’s fun--asserts itself past the hoppy, strained beginning.

The book opens with 35-year-old Loren Paul high in the hills of Wyoming, determined to undergo what he calls a Vision Quest. He is happy with Lana Sue, his second wife of about two years, but happiness triggers a sense of dread. He fears loss. It has come time to reckon with the past in order to accept this happiness. Seekers through the ages have stumbled around mountainsides, and now, Loren figures, it’s time for God, or something, to give him the sign, show him how to go on.

Earlier in Denver, as a student at Denver University, Loren had met and married Ann, whose small son, Buggie, completed the touching and disturbing love triangle of those days. Domestic bliss ended tragically, and Loren withdrew into years of stuperdom. “Implosion therapy” led him to write a book about Ann and Buggie. On the day he finished, he wandered into a Denver country bar. (Last he knew, it was a Mexican restaurant. Loren is a Western guy, but no fan of country music.) The woman glumly watching the band he recognized as the same Lana Sue whose name he had had tattooed on his back when they were teen-agers in Houston.


While Lana Sue has a spicy background and view of life (“Once found, country music and regular sex aren’t something that can be walked away from”), Loren admits, “Every time a new woman enters my life, my first reaction is confusion and guilt.” Loren has needed Lana Sue’s harmless bluster and raunch to heave him out of his Slough of Despond. She, bedeviled by bad times with the pedal steel set (and an early robo-marriage to a high school sweetheart-turned-suburbanite doctor) is in thrall to Loren’s lack of expectation and his preoccupation with deep stuff: writing, talking to dead writers. Also his lovemaking. “You’re technically good and emotional at the same time. That’s a rare combination,” she says.

The Vision Quest, stoked by desperation and Fig Newton-eating, is to clear the way for life with Lana Sue. But Lana Sue, having sniffed a potential rejection in Loren’s increasingly fanatical Quest preparations, split pronto. (Her way with men.) While Loren, on the mountain top, becomes dazed from a diet of cookies and philosophy--and the realization that someone is taking pot shots at him--Lana Sue steps into rattler nests everywhere. Over a period of a few days, she meets up with fire, guns, mayhem, and sexual escapade.

The book alternates narration between the separated couple, two strong voices. To Sandlin’s credit, he establishes them as a couple, though the story keeps them apart.

In the long section on Loren’s history with Ann and Buggie, Sandlin is at his best, writing easy; extraneous distraction falls away in favor of taut storytelling. Heartfelt emotion and humor rise like smoke from the core fire, Loren’s life and loss.

Loren ponders the senseless death of his young sister in a riot years earlier: “High school funerals always play to a full house. This is because so few teen-agers believe in death, and when one of their kind jams the fact home, they stream toward the body, drawn by the irresistibility of all repulsive objects.” Abrupt life changes have intruded too often in Loren’s life. He finds solace in the hills. “A campfire is the only thing on earth that looks the same as it did a thousand years ago.”

Lana Sue, despite her good-girl-gonna-go-bad life, has nothing in her background as touching and devastating as the Buggie story. Here, Sandlin’s push is often too hard, tending to define her through feistiness alone. Her comments can sound glib; are relentlessly sexual. It is apparent, at least, that her attitude shields her from pain. She remains believable.

Gems of Americana stud the landscape of memory. First wife Ann was a disciple of Maharaj Ji, the 14-year-old guru “fat boy” who set up headquarters in Denver/Boulder during the region’s John Denver days. And Lana Sue refers to ordering Mama burgers at A&W.; (Papa, Mama, Teen, and Baby burgers have been as germane to the drive-in’s history as root beer itself.)

The reunion of Loren and Lana Sue is flashy, befitting the book’s style and spirit; a last-minute menace doesn’t feel like a real threat. At heart here is a celebration of tenacious spirits, the need and right to live with a blundering innocent hope. The examined life matters. Optimism prevails. The desire to embrace what is good drives these two. Sandlin’s is a book about running into the sun and keeping on, with humor, passion, and faith, no matter how you burn or mess up.