Catching Stardust : ONE SWEET QUARREL, <i> By Deirdre McNamer (HarperCollins: $22; 280 pp</i> .<i> )</i>

<i> Watson is the author of "Montana 1948."</i>

John Updike has written that only the historical novelist is able to convey the “immensity of time a human life spans, a span itself dwarfed by the perspectives of history.” In her second novel, Deirdre McNamer depicts both the beauty and the sadness in this span as she chronicles lives that extend from that time in our century when citizens tried to catch dust from Halley’s comet to the era when human debris littered the heavens.

Daisy Lou Malone is among those believers who stand on a crowded city street with an unstoppered jar held in the air. Scientists have assured them dust will fall as the comet streaks overhead. Stardust of another kind has brought Daisy to New York. Possessed of some musical talent, she plans on a career as a concert performer and recording artist. But Daisy Lou has neither sufficient savvy nor talent to find success in the big city.

Her brother shares her idealistic nature but while Daisy Lou is looking to the sky, Jerry Malone is directing his vision in the opposite direction. He has traveled not east but west, and there he studies the contours of the Montana plains, hoping the deposits of oil buried beneath the prairie will make him a wealthy man. He knows you can’t “just believe in surfaces, whether of scrubgrass or air . . . or the way another person seem(s) to be.”


Their brother Carlton, by contrast, is all smooth surfaces. Neither as moral nor as sensitive as his siblings, he seems at first a perfect candidate for success. He is the classic entrepreneurial opportunist, willing to take any risk, any advantage in the pursuit of a dollar. Yet for all his monetary adventurousness, Carlton is the (one) who ends up back home, in St. Paul, Minn., where their father was once a Presbyterian minister.

Although Jerry and Daisy Malone initially travel in separate directions, they end up in the same Montana community. In 1923, Shelby, Mont.--a “rakish, unkempt” little town with “the look of a too-skinny kid with a few teeth knocked out”--arranges to host a heavyweight championship bout between Jack Dempsey and challenger Tommy Gibbons. The event must surely be one of the oddest--and most desperate--in the history of sports.

Shelby stakes everything on the match. The flurry of oil speculation has not brought the hoped-for boom, and years of drought have wilted the dreams of agricultural and ranching prosperity. Perhaps the fight will attract enough fans--and dollars--to lift the town from its depression.

But Shelby’s dreams are no more to be than Jerry’s and Daisy Lou’s. Dempsey and his manager leave town with virtually every dollar the gate brings, and then some.

The fight backers and many of Shelby’s citizens lose everything, yet what follows is a curiously jubilant scene, a “mixture of mourning and relief.” Men walk around town “with their empty pockets flapping.” Laughter and music are in the air. That night Daisy Lou “has a particular light of her own” as she sings to a “wild clapping crowd.” Jerry and his wife Vivian dance together, “amazed at what they have come through.”

And that of course is what the townspeople are celebrating. That they have come through, stayed and persevered when so many did not. (This pattern of migration and departure repeats itself in the 1990s. The latest U.S. Census reveals that the West is experiencing another surge of population. Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona and Utah are the fastest-growing states. As in the past, however, these modern pioneers do not find the region accommodating. According to a study by a Montana State University sociologist, most of them leave within five years.)

Although Montana does not give Jerry and Daisy Lou and others like them all they hoped for, the region gets something from them--their decency, their durability, even their dreaminess--on which it can build its character and its communities.

Indeed, the novel is framed by a small-town ceremony in which Shelby honors Jerry and Daisy Lou and other “old-timers.” That they do not feel quite deserving of the attention only adds to their worthiness.

Reading “One Sweet Quarrel” often feels like paging through a family album with a guide who knows exactly how much background we want, who knows when to speed up and when to slow down, when to jump back or ahead in time. The novel is composed of letters, fragments of diaries and, mostly, a series of beautifully rendered tableaux, scenes frozen in time and space like snapshots in the album: Jerry and Vivian picnicking on the prairie; Daisy Lou being kissed by a bootlegger on a city street; Daisy, Jerry and Vivian sitting in the newly built bleachers and staring down at the canvas where two boxers try to beat each other senseless under the scorching summer sun.

In the narrow sense of plot, “One Sweet Quarrel” is a novel in which nothing much happens. But in most lives, nothing much happens. We are born, we struggle to live and love, we age . . . our replacements arrive. History’s great wheel rolls, and we are positioned along its spokes. That so many manage the ride with dignity and good humor is a remarkable thing. To capture it in breathtaking, luminous prose, as Deirdre McNamer has done, is all the more remarkable.