LOOSE JAM by Wayne Wilson Delacorte Press $17.95, 263 pages
This first novel is filled with such macho-man prose as: "There was a flash of red and his head seemed to stretch like a ball of dough. Blood squirted down the front of his shirt. A fist slammed into his belly, lifting him to his toes, driving the air from his lungs. Doubled up and choking, Henry fell to the pavement."
But although maybe 20% of this narrative is filled with bar fights, road fights and house fights, and another 20% is composed of generic rape, murder and pillage, "Loose Jam" is far, far more than a man's-man novel.
Yes, it's true a gun goes off every dozen pages--whether in Vietnam flashbacks or the stormy California present. It's true men bite each other and bash each other with pots and pans and brass Buddhas, and nobody is "half-stepping" here, and even the villains are righteous in their villainy. But the novel, just under all this action-movie stuff, is about love, friendship, second chances and whether life is worth it.
As "Loose Jam" opens, Henry Brown, Vietnam vet and former side man for pianist Miles Duckworth, self-styled "voice of a generation," is padding quietly into middle age, bugged by the sour knowledge that life, as he's living it, is full of fifth and sixth choices.
Henry works up in San Luis Obispo as the manager of someone else's record store. He rents someone else's house. He's got a crush on a good woman, but he can't get to first base with her. He's sore as a boil about everything: He's fat; he's bald; he lives on a diet of doughnuts, lasagna and tequila; he has to put up with small-town and small-time posturing on every side. His boss is a culture-monger, but that's just the tiny tip of the iceberg. To Henry, everything is bleak, everything sad. He's convinced that, at 40, his life is over.
Enter--on crutches, dirty and drunk--Miles Duckworth, out ofthe past. His band is gone; he's been playing in pizza joints, and a wound from 'Nam has left him with just the one leg. But all that is nothing. What's worrying Miles is that another veteran, a creepy sociopath called Policy Man, is out of prison and after him, sworn to murder Miles, still holding a 20-year grudge.
Miles plays immediate hell with Henry's life. Miles swears and pukes and dithers at such a high pitch that within a couple of days (it makes you wonder exactly how up-tight San Luis Obispo is as a community), Henry's lost his house and his job. He, Miles and Martha--the woman of Henry's dreams--drive south to Los Angeles, then out to Pomona to confront their respective screwed-up pasts. And in a rust-colored van, the Policy Man, with a stupid and murderous sidekick called Byron, hurtle after them, determined to settle that 20-year score.
A word about clumsiness, and then about Art. Clumsiness looms large in this legend. Henry, while driving, chokes on bread and olive oil, and manages to make it all come out his nose. Miles spills wine, and leaves the fire on under kettles until they melt into the stove. Even Policy Man bungles a burglary by stopping for a Milky Way at a candy-bar machine and getting his hand stuck in the slot. The author is telling us, and can't stop telling us, that all these guys, the good and the bad, are misfits. They don't fit, plain and simple, and it goes back before the war to their white trash origins.
On the other hand, their music is there as a perfect saving grace, the one immutable thing in an otherwise terribly imperfect world.
Henry idolizes his grandfather, who first taught him to play the guitar, and, watching him, thinks, "What a pleasure it was to watch the old man's simplest gestures; like his handwriting, they reflected an archaic elegance, a flair, that made Henry think of harmony saxes and Edwin Clapp shoes. . . . Was there anything as nice as the way old men played? Stephane Grappelli, Furry Lewis, Doc Watson, Jelly Roll--absolute harmony of heart and fingers."
There are a few things to complain about:
The accent on Stephane is there, but left off "Norteno" music. The veterans' parade and migrant workers' strike created in the first half of this novel is neglected in the second. And there are three characters who "throw back their head and laugh."
But this is nit-picking (or close-editing) of a fine book that aims at the highest goal: "What do you think about when you think about trying to be a good man?" "Loose Jam" deserves respectful reading.
Next: "The World of Mathematics," edited with commentaries and notes by James R. Newman (Tempus Books).