BOOK REVIEW : A Novel Doomed by Its Own Pace

ONE TRUE THING by Greg Matthews Grove Weidenfeld $18.95, 306 pages

“One True Thing” is about the weirdness of Middle America, at least I hope that’s what it’s about. It’s also about the nature of longing and yearning and about how desperately difficult it can be to fulfill even the most minimal ambition. You can also tab this as a flawed novel, since it’s full of signs and symbols that lend the narrative a portentousness that never pans out. Alternately, you can label Greg Matthews as an author doomed to be misunderstood by his critics. (Or at least this critic.)

Here is the story: Out on the plains of Kansas in the somewhat faraway past (“the unexciting months that followed Hiroshima”), a war veteran named Lowell Kootz comes home with a burning vision for the betterment of his town, Callisto, Kan.: a new motel, called the Thunderbird, a circle of concrete tepees with a big concrete tepee in the middle, and an 80-foot concrete totem pole, crackling with neon, outside, beckoning to drivers on the interstate.

Lowell gets his dream, marries a waitress--to the chagrin of respectable folk in the town of Callisto--and has a son named Ray. Lowell soon turns to womanizing and drink, and manages to kill himself off in a car accident. Ray, desperately lonely, lives with his mom in the big concrete tepee; joins a gun club, seduces a sad girl, then drops her, then watches his best friend go off to war. (Is the pace too fast here? In the novel, decades go by in a paragraph, which may indeed be the nature of the reality the author is trying to mirror, but leaves the reader leafing back through the pages to keep everything in order.)


All Ray wants is love, and a family. He never wants to leave Callisto, Kan., and never does; he wants no more of a career than managing the Thunderbird Motel, and that’s all the career he gets. His wife-to-be rides by (with a son from a previous marriage) and Ray rouses himself enough to slash her tires, so that he will have time with her to mount a courtship. . . .

So Ray and Holly get married. Ray and his stepson, Milo, never get along. Ray and Holly have a kid of their own, Kevin, but Ray’s wife fools around, because that’s just the way she is, and about two-thirds of the way through the novel, a bizarre and grotesque death occurs, and the narrative turns to devil worship, cocaine dealing, snuff movies, and the possibility of redemption by the love of a good woman. (Meanwhile, Ray Kootz is still back behind the desk of the lobby of the Thunderbird, checking customers in and signing them out; sinking into hopelessness and coming up for a breath of hope every once in a while.)

‘One True Thing” is a very interesting novel, and the author has set himself an ambitious assignment. Surely “literature” in this country must remember and immortalize all the Ray Kootzes of this world: If we call Kansas our “Heartland,” that must be where the American heart is. And every human being must have a human soul, even if he or she is unable to articulate anything but the most ill-humored cliches. But other literary cliches also hold true here: How do you write about ill-tempered dumbbells and still hold the reader’s interest? How can we be made to care about the fate of Ray Kootz and his children? What is the “meaning” of the Thunderbird Motel, and why does Milo insist on four gold teeth? What’s the function of the snuff movie in the narrative? Finally, if the nature of Middle America has changed so violently since 1950, wouldn’t the author like to take a stab at saying why? It looks as if Greg Matthews started one novel and finished another. It happens sometimes. Or, this whole story went right over my head. God knows, that happens too.