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Inner Tube by Hob Broun (Knopf: $14.95; 224 pp.)

December 01, 1985|Alex Raksin | Raksin, a writer and producer, does the Now in Paperback column for The Book Review.

Hob Broun is a 1960s child carrying out a 1980s rebellion. The revolution over, politics dismissed as a necessary evil, the oppressors, this time, come from within.

"Inner Tube" begins on a morbid note: The narrator's mother commits suicide by smashing her head through a television screen, dying amid "bright drainage from jugular and cartoid."

Television, at first, emerges as a standard societal evil, "a sea of electromagnetic tides" churning life into fragments that mock the half-hearted attempts of Broun's characters to find meaning:

"We found artifacts for the taking, jumbled and abundant, expendable as toys--chariots, fighter planes, crossbows, gold dust, igloos-- . . . and from this disorder we let the past compose itself. . . . We pledged allegiance (one nation invisible) under a portrait of Lincoln--or was it Henry Fonda?"

Conferring value upon the trivial, TV becomes partly responsible for the suicide of the narrator's mother, a failed actress. When she lands a job selling soap in a TV commercial, the director whispers in her ear, "You must be calm but underneath in flames."

Recognizing an easy scapegoat, Broun doesn't carry his attack on TV too far. Isolation, as he sees it, is an inherent part of the human condition; TV is simply an opiate, dulling our awareness.

"Consider the over-evolved creature whose most dangerous enemies come from within," Broun writes. "Imagine the first useless panic, the first nightmare, the first crushing turn of anomie. Ten thousand generations later, all we can do is palliate. Misery abhors a vacuum and history is a list of sedatives, from animism to humanism to Haldol."

And so, fleeing from this ersatz world, Broun's hero leaves his job midway through the book--appropriately, he works cataloguing old television shows in an underground office building--to seek out something more genuine.

At first, he doesn't get very far. In hope of catharsis, perhaps, he immerses himself in sin, bitterly indulging in empty places and people: a small-town cafe where "the only sounds (come) from fork and plate and cup"; a motel where he begins a relationship with the maid ("Heidi wants to be alone. I want to help her").

Eventually, Broun's narrator fulfills his objective, traveling deep into the desert and breaking all ties. He lives at first with a pet goat, of whom he grows fond. But soon, he eats the goat ("fibrous but succulent"), abandoning the last fragment of tenderness within him, the last fragment of his humanity. "Are we not men? No we are animals. All the consoling fabrications must be waived."

Yet however bleak the narrator's epiphany might seem, Broun is not writing about reverse Darwinism. Regression in this book is a form of progress. The accouterments of civilization may delude us into believing that we have reached nobler goals, but we are in fact simply surviving. In the desert, Broun's narrator comes to terms with our failure.

Rebellion in the 1960s was not like this. Those throwing rocks and carrying placards did so with the belief that they could attain a higher state of awareness. They envisioned an earthly paradise, but their hope was more sexual than religious because they did not think that fate or a higher deity would be the agent of change; they saw themselves as the procreators. Somehow, their "higher spiritual consciousness" would put things into perspective, fulfilling the hope expressed by poet Adrienne Rich: "I wish there was somewhere / actual we could stand / handing the power-glasses back and forth / looking at the earth, the wildwood / where the split began."

At the end of the film Koyaanisquatsi ("life out of balance"), the first stage of a rocket gradually falls back to Earth, turning bright orange as it disintegrates. Godfrey Reggio, the film's director, lets this scene pass slowly, heightening the contrast to the frenetic activity, from streets to the stock market, that dominates the rest of the film.

This tumult has become our natural ethos. Broun slows us down and brings perspective. His vision is vitally needed to put life back into balance in this era of panicky optimism. For, to paraphrase Thomas Carlyle, progress is a fine horse to ride, but to ride somewhere.

After writing six chapters of "Inner Tube," Hob Broun was operated on for a spinal tumor and left paralyzed from the neck down. He completed this book by blowing into the catheter of a specially designed word processer, which he is now using to complete a novel and a collection of short stories. He lives in a halfway house in Portland, Ore.

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