Search of Snow, Luis Alberto Urrea, 259pp, HarperCollins,
I've been avoiding this novel for years. This isn't as crazy as it
sounds: I've been working in a used book shop in Boston and the book
passes through my hands at least once a year. I knew it wasn't my
type of book. The blurb on the cover mentions 'prize-fighting, drinking
and macho hunkery.' Maybe it was the author's long hair, his shades.
It seemed too well packaged; as if inside I'd find some smooth modernist
take on the west, attitude without substance, a mirage. Something
straight out of Los Angeles, not the mythic west.
Then recently Urrea's name came up in connection with another writer
I like, Terry Tempest Williams. The recommendation was strong enough
that I picked up a copy.
Somehow in the past I'd ignored the quote on the back cover from Ursula
K. Le Guin. A mistake. Le Guin is careful with her words and her name.
She crafts stories that are some of the most beautiful and disciplined
I've read. Her name isn't lightly used. I slowly realized this novel
of Mike McGurk and Bonifacio 'Bobo' Garcia in the post World War Two
USA wasn't what I had supposed. At last I was getting near the truth.
My expectations had lead me down the wrong track. It isn't Hemingway
heads west, or Robert Parker meets Zane Grey. This is the west in
all it's space, emptiness, boredom, beauty and excitement.
The prologue has McGurk and Garcia watching a gas station explode.
The event hangs over the novel but doesn't crush it; rather, it gives
weight. Since Mike and his father live in the station we know the
explosion will happen, but we don't know how, or who it will affect.
Mike's father, Turk McGurk runs the station. He is living the legend
he began as a child when he refused to answer to his given name, Wallace.
When that was shortened to the demeaning Wally he began fighting.
Since then he's made money as a bare-knuckle fighter so that even
though Mike is 29 and living at the station, it's Turk that dominates
For Mike his father's one redeeming aspect is the love of books he
passed on to Mike. At night Turk would read, then act out, scenes
from books; especially Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. Now Mike
doesn't read for the sense of action and excitement but rather for
escape, a view of other places, and for him the one true thing he
Without putting an actual date on the book and without dating it with
a list of accoutremonts and labels, Urrea places the action very firmly
in the 1950's. It's not the suburbs but life is changing. World War
Two has had a huge impact that is still being felt. Cars, the universal
sign of freedom in the USA, are important. At first they hold Mike
in place at the station. There's always an engine to be worked on,
a truck to fix, someone who wants gas. Later it's a truck and a motorbike
that give the two men a chance at freedom, or at least a temporary
I haven't even touched on the interplay between whites, Indians, and
Mexicans that underlies almost every conversation in the book. Urrea
has a deft touch in racial insults and insights. There is space for
inter-racial friendship but he makes no attempts at fixing the problems
of the past and present. The book is the better for it.
In among the cars and the fights -- Bobo was once a professional Mexican
wrestler, Bobo of Borneo, The Butcher of Burundi, the Red Devil --
and appreciation of women -- mostly at a distance -- there is the
land. Urrea reminds me that when driving across the country it was
Arizona that was awe-inspiringly beautiful. I knew about New Mexico;
no one mentioned Arizona. He captures the land and the people without
the hyperbole of tourist brochure fiction.
Like the beginning, the end gives us a few clues to Mike and Bobo's
future without spelling it out. It's an important episode, but it's
not their whole lives. It will leave you wanting more.
Once I'd finished the book I checked to see if Urrea had written anything
since. He obviously has a deep interest in the life of the land and
peoples of the west. He's explored it using many written forms including
a couple of books of poetry and two non-fiction accounts of life in
the area, Across
the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border and By
the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border.
There's also Wandering
Time: The Western Notebooks which are exactly what they say
the title says: excerpts from his notebooks while wandering and driving
through the west. A couple of years ago his autobiography,
Nobody's Son, deservedly won the American Book Award.
According to his website he
is working on a new novel. The good news is that if you do want to
find this book -- which reminded me a little of Eudora Welty's tall
tales - it's recently been brought back into print as a trade paperback
by the University of Arizona Press at $16.95.
He Hollers Let Him Go, Chester Himes, 203pp, Thunder's Mouth
Press, 1995, $12.95
This is a clenched fist, a scream in your face, one hell of a novel.
Bob Jones is young, black and angry. The Man is putting him down everywhere
he goes: hotels, bars, restaurants, on the road and especially on
the job at the Atlas Shipyard in Los Angeles. It's WWII and blacks
are moving into industry at hitherto unseen rates. Despite the illusions
of management and the media the integration is not smooth.
In the four days covered by the book Jones' life goes to hell. You
watch it happening, you can see possible escape routes, you know Hime/Jones
isn't going to go for any of them. The end is quick and almost surprising.
It's not the expected police bullet nor a fall down the stairs: Jones
survives by stepping sideways into the future.
This was Himes' first novel and it doesn't get as much attention as
his two detective series featuring Coffin Ed Smith and Gravedigger
Jones. It has often been compared to Richard Wright's Native
Son published six years before but Himes doesn't let society
off the hook. His angry, violent young man will be there in the 1950's
when the fight for equal rights really reached the forefront of American
consciousness. It will be his children going to unsegregated schools,
his anger fueling the Black Panthers. It is all here writ in Jones'
confrontations: with his boss; with Madge Perkins, a white woman working
in the shipyard; and with Johnny Stoddart, another white shipworker
with whom Jones get locked in a near-fatal feud. Jones has the material
goods that often represent the Good Life in the USA, but Jones' money
can't buy respect or, literally, a place at the table. He can't hold
himself back and society can't accept anything but holding him in
place. The tension is terrific.
I read this on the subway going to and from work. Coming back late
at night it was strange to look up at the multi-colored T-riders,
then go back to the book where whites and blacks can hardly speak
without violence erupting. Coming to the end of the book I missed
my stop. I wasn't irritated by the walk back, only the time away from
Read this book.
Goodbye, Lewis Shiner, 245pp, St. Martin's Press, 1999,
As I write I'm listening to Texas, a Scottish band who have been
the occasional soundtrack to my life for more than ten years. At college
I danced with the rest of Britain to "I Don't Want a Lover"
from Southside (1989). Rick's Road (1993) was a critical
success but they disappeared from my radar until I came across a copy
of 1997's White On Blonde, an album full of white soul and
unending hooks. Until this album the focus had been the whole band,
here singer Sharleen Spiteri stepped forward. Suddenly they were sexy,
glamourous; they were catapulted to new levels of stardom: huge concerts,
hot singles, songs on film soundtracks.
In Say Goodbye, singer Laurie Moss only reaches the first level
of recognition. She throws up her life in San Antonio, Texas, packs
everything into her Little Brown Datsun and heads for Los Angeles
to try her luck in the music business. She has a couple of strokes
of luck and her talent begins to draw the vibes of success and stardom.
Hangers-on appear, old friends get dumped, there are all the expected
twists and turns of a band on the rise. The difference between this
and a Sunday magazine artist profile is Shiner's writing. He's written
four other novels, two collections of short stories and writes about
music for a variety of magazines. His pacing and tone are controlled.
Although the characters might be treading the same paths as hundreds
of other hopefuls they aren't cliches. But it's in the music that
the writing really shines: I want to hear the songs he's writing about;
it's better than the stuff on the radio, more heartfelt than the cds
in the shops. (Damned if I can find Laurie Moss at Newbury Comics
An unnamed journalist hears a Laurie Moss song on a college station
and decides she can turn his career around. He's sure there's a good
story and he goes after it. He tracks down the song, the cd, and begins
to trace Moss. He interviews bit players, sidemen, employers, anyone
who can give him an 'in' until he gets Laurie's email address. Here
the novel moves from removed and somewhat elegiac, due to the extensive
use of the past tense - at one point I was wondering if Moss were
alive or dead -- and becomes warm and intimate. Moss appears on stage
and suddenly it's understandable why people would follow her. She's
young, attractive, intense, plays her father's guitar, sings songs
that tremble on the edge of familiarity.
When the band go out on tour it seems Shiner must have been along
for the ride. Laurie is presented as someone in the midst of a whirlwind.
She wants to be in a band while the rest of the world wants only to
look at her. I wish she, Sharleen Spiteri and Gwen Stefani could get
together over beer and talk about what happens to the boys in the
band when Rolling Stone wants only you for the cover. Texas are where
Shiner makes you want Laurie Moss to be: on top of the world and deservedly
It's not all dreams and shining inspiration though. The juggernaut
of the music business is always in the background. Costs and sales
are realistically presented. Success is related to paying the rent.
Contracts are discussed and Laurie Moss might as well be pork bellies
for all the executives care. Personal and business empires have to
be protected first and foremost. The artist is way down the list.
I haven't read anything as revealing as this on the music business
since Steve Albini's horribly cold and informative piece
in The Baffler where he
showed that even a relatively successful band selling 250,000 cds
could still end up broke and owing everyone money. Shiner's book is
warmer but should be read by anyone who's ever been tempted to throw
everything up and try for the stars.
*Also recommended: Shiner's previous novel, the award winning Glimpses,
back in print as of Feb. 2002
Lewis Shiner Interview