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A Dissertation Derailed by Life's Maze

December 31, 1985|CAROLYN SEE

The El Cholo Feeling Passes by Fredrick Barton (Peachtree: $14.95)

Acknowledgments are particularly important in this book: " 'The El Cholo Feeling Passes: A Digression,' which is not a doctoral dissertation in United States history, is a product of the author's mind alone. But the contributions of many have made the final preparation of this volume possible." Richard Janus, young hotshot in the department of history at UCLA, then duly thanks his grade-school teacher, his undergraduate mentors, his dissertation chairman, the foundation that provided him with four years of crucial financial support, libraries, and inevitably, "Faith Cleaver, who provided the final challenge. . . . Faith my friend, my critic, my antagonist, my wife."

Then comes that title page--so carefully spaced!--of the dissertation itself, and the reader, having remembered that a Janus-faced person looks two ways at once, and noticing as well that the acknowledged wife has a heavily symbolic name of her own, settles in to what might very well be a standard academic novel; a story of a melancholy, discontented, sensitive student and the clunk-wife who won't understand him, and the injustices of the academic system, etc., etc.

Wrong Turns at the Beginning

But instead, this "digression," this non-dissertation, a long letter of resignation written to his committee in history, becomes perhaps what a doctoral dissertation might best be: a personal history, a search for truth, an account of decent human beings set loose in society, humans who--like well-intentioned rats in a cruelly run experiment--took wrong turns at the very beginning of the maze and live the first 10 years of their adult lives (from 18 to 28) in agony and ignorance, laughing about it, trying to figure it out, trying to love each other, trying to keep track of events that are far, far beyond their comprehension.

This is not an academic novel at all, but a great, wide, youthful swoop at reality that compares to the visions of James Jones, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth. "The El Cholo Feeling Passes" is big--and very beautiful.

Richard Janus, in his non-dissertation, tells his story two ways, in the first and the third person. He tells us from inside and out how everyone (his parents, his teachers) commends him for being mature, even as he opens doors that knock down girls, or dances with the school geek, hands scrunched into his long sleeves so he won't have to touch her (and feels guilty forever after). Richard is an athlete and gets good grades, and from the outside he looks fine--his mask fits properly. But from the beginning (the sixth grade, to be exact), he suffers from that excruciating set of emotions that Joseph Heller gave us in "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" Not the snows, not the tempered longings of the classic poets, but the Snowdens, the guys we knew, who died, or the ones we never even got to know. . . .

Sixth-Grade Orgies

For Janus, it's "Kincaid parties," sixth-grade orgies. And when he finally gets to one (since he lives in New Orleans), he finds they're King Cake parties, and they're very nice, but they'll never have the enchantments of the ones he missed, the ones that never existed.

Janus grows up all over the map in America, making friends and losing them, losing his parents in a meaningless divorce; so when he meets Faith, a cute sorority miss who talks like a silly little girl and takes him home to meet her wacko dad (who swills Southern Comfort and says, by way of conversation, "What was Booker T. Washington's middle name?"), it's obvious that he and Faith are going to get married. Why? It's a question often asked by people who marry just out of college. And no less agonizing because there's no real answer.

This book is about failures of thought and language, even as the characters are breezing through their obligatory German exams. Faith is a tough little wife whose favorite sentence is "I hate you," when all she means is she wants her own car, or she wants to be known by her own name, or she's afraid she never should have married at all. Janus is a man who can do everything he's supposed to do but who doesn't want to do it, so that every move he makes forward in his career is actually a step sideways, because he's (again) lost in a maze and can't find the way out.

Sweet and Sad Side of L.A.

Los Angeles is the setting for the last third of this book, and never has the sad side, the poor side, the unachieving sweet side of a city been so lovingly delineated. The LoDoMar Bowling Alley is re-created here for us, and the Brentwood Twin Theaters saluted, and, of course, El Cholo, that hospitable and inexpensive palace of perfect margaritas and all-you-can-eat. The good times at El Cholo with Faith and Richard and their friend Johnny Golden are what give rise to the El Cholo Feeling, which, if I read correctly, is at once happiness and anguish, the sense of wonderful times as perishable as margaritas or love or friendship itself.

The finest moment in the world (which for Richard Janus, irrevocably, is defined not as accomplishment, or promotion, or developing one's reputation or even wildly making love, but something better: eating potato chips and watching old movies on the tube with best friends, or making up fake German phrases, or shooting pool) is melting, even as we touch it. Life is, Fredrick Barton tells us, a Kincaid party, and if we don't know that, we don't know beans.

Failures of thought and language. Faith "speaks in tongues" for a while, while Richard can't even get himself confirmed. Faith is a militant feminist while Richard practically goes on the dole; literally lies down on the job. She surges ahead, he falls behind. But they love each other! Shouldn't that count for something? Barton's answer is utterly honest, utterly forgiving.

"The El Cholo Feeling Passes" has some flaws, but page by page it's a winner, a beauty.

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