Written in the late '60s, originally issued by small presses and long since out of print, these two novels constitute the complete longer fiction of a major West Coast poet. Philip Whalen, an Oregon native (b. 1923), attended Reed College with poets Gary Snyder and Lew Welch, and later lived and worked in the Bay Area among the Beat group (his friendship with Ginsberg and Kerouac was documented in the latter's books). There, his steady and impressive poetic output placed him in the mainstream of the local "Poetry Renaissance" of the '50s.
But while lesser versifiers of his generation took away the prizes and grants and filled up the university poet-in-residence positions, Whalen found the cost of retaining his independence to be a life of relative poverty and obscurity. For the last 10 years he has lived in semi-retreat as a Zen Buddhist monk.
The same thematic impulse that drives Whalen's poetry also animates his fiction: a striving for independence of the imagination. The primary motif in all of this writer's work is liberty, which in personal-value terms translates into the time and freedom--as he puts it in one of these novels--"to write down what he knew and what he kept discovering" with as little practical impediment as possible.
The earlier and more conventionally structured of these two novels is "You Didn't Even Try" (1967), a relatively traditional exploration of the world through the consciousness of a protagonist whose experience is unfolded as a chronological narrative of events. Its hero, Kenneth, a man of "a little more than thirty," starts out as a functional member of middle-class San Francisco society, with wife, car and job, but gradually finds that the strain of playing out this social role leaves him repressed, depressed and exhausted by "fantasies and interior rages."
Ken's refusal to go on "trying" loses him wife and car, in that order; his wife charges that he's "alienated from any kind of social reality." After quitting his humdrum government job, he hitches a ride with a friend to Marin, and while the friend drives back to work, Ken climbs Mt. Tamalpais, where he thinks of the poet Shelley--and Shelley's "gorgeous blind desire to free the world." Ken finally opts for liberty, resolving to "stay loose . . . sit around for a while and do some philosophy."
The ramifications of such a life-choice can be seen in "Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head" (1972). Its hero, poet Roy Aherne, is a more mature--or at least less restrained--version of Kenneth. The social estrangement of Whalen's alter-ego protagonists has progressed from book to book.
"Speeches" is also a progression from its predecessor in terms of formal conception, showing evidence of a more extreme constructivist approach. Much like Whalen's poetry, this novel has an episodic, paratactic structure; it's a cut-up montage of non-chronologically arranged sections, with each of the sections serving a concentric function, like spokes radiating from a hub. The hub is the protagonist's flowing, shifting consciousness, or "brain movie," as Whalen has dubbed the mind-state he tries to reveal in his poetry.
If Whalen's hero in "Try" struggles his way through to a libertarian philosophy like Shelley's, it's left to the hero of the later novel to act that philosophy out. Actually, Roy Aherne behaves less like Shelley than like some latter-day urban Thoreau who carries his private Walden Pond around in his head.
What makes Whalen's cranky, self-indulgent poet-loafer protagonists not only tolerable but charming is, first, their senses of humor, and second, the tension between their desires for independence and their complex social needs. Those needs are objectified in the intelligent, attractive company of their friends--to whom, in fact, Whalen's heroes flee for physical and spiritual replenishment at every available opportunity.
The San Francisco hip society of the '60s, as re-created here, has the half-mythic allure of some meta-urban Elysium part history and part creative amplification. (The novelist's point in place-setting his stories in San Francisco seems to have been lost on Paul Christensen, the Texas A&M professor who contributes an introduction describing them as a view of "the society and terrain of Berkeley"!)
Though these novels (particularly "Speeches") have the unmistakable roman-a-clef feel of thinly veiled autobiography, Whalen's characters are not so much portraits or amalgams as idealizations of actual people: real-life friends and lovers he has transformed into the brilliant, sexy, bigger-than-life beings who inhabit his utopian idyll of freedom.