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Book Review : Music of the Spheres in America 1 and 2

September 08, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson (Poseidon Press: $15.95)

If "Rubicon Beach" were a racehorse, it would be out of Thomas Pynchon, sired by Kurt Vonnegut. The characteristics this novel inherits from its literary parents are, in a sense, genetic. From Pynchon, a feeling for landscape that intuits depth beneath each surface. From Vonnegut comes the conviction that time is not chronological, not linear, but more like a sieve than a string. You can fall through a time net in Erickson's stories; people turn up missing from one world, only to lose themselves in another.

To continue the equine metaphor, Erickson is still the very wild young colt, feeling his oats, etc., etc., not quite broken to the various disciplines of the conventional. He often tries ambitious hurdles that he sometimes does not quite clear, but his power, his strength, are undeniable and fascinating. Erickson resists "training"; he doesn't appear to want to go along with other writers. Even the avant-garde appears to hold little attraction for him. His vision, his "message," is unique, insistent, sad, original.

Hancock Park as Island

"Rubicon Beach" is cast in three parts and set in four places. The first section (and if there is an aesthetic fault to be found with Erickson, it is that he has put his most stunning visual and artistic material at the beginning instead of the end), shows us Los Angeles in the year 1988, and in ruins. The whole country has splintered politically into America One and America Two, and the West Coast has become a series of annexes and Far Territories. The city of L.A. mirrors this in geographic terms. The flood and the quake and maybe the bomb have come, and our streets have metamorphosed into canals. Hancock Park is an island of almost deserted mansions where beautiful prostitutes ply their trade.

Into this waterlogged city comes Cale, a 39-year-old who looks 55. He's been in prison for a crime of inadvertent betrayal. He is haunted by a vision of a beautiful young woman decapitating a man. Is that man the one he betrayed? Or is it Cale himself?

Part two of "Rubicon Beach" takes us to South America, to the home of the beautiful young woman. She is preternatural and powerful beyond words: Lashed to a tree, her eyes open all night, she is as powerful in her literal radiance as a lighthouse. Catherine (as she will come to be named) escapes the surreal beauty and ugliness of her coastal jungle town and journeys north to "America." What do the producers, writers, actors and athletic matrons of Beverly Hills do with the most beautiful and spiritually intense woman in the world--the woman who may be able to heal all wounds and schisms between men and women, North and South America, not to mention the Old World and the New? They make her a kitchen maid, of course, but that doesn't last for long.

A Mother's Songs

Part Three brings us to the very center of America, to Illinois, and is written in the laconic colloquial style of the country during the Great Depression. Jack Mick Lake is part of a family of hard-working white Protestant guys. His mother, however, is Indian--part of another America. Jack is a mathematical genius, but he recognizes that the numbers that buzz through his brain bear a relationship to the music of the trains and plains and sod that his mother hears. This singing has been present at all points through this novel and in this universe, but few are those with ears to hear it.

The Lake men journey west from time to time, but they can't seem to get past a vast river. Could it be the Mississippi? Or is it the vast chasm between America One and America Two? Or is it the Rubicon itself?

A grumpy reader might want to know more, but Erickson trusts in the power of his prose to tell you what he "means." Jack Mick Lake retreats east, across the Atlantic, to Penzance, England, the very end of the Old World. There he meets, as if by chance, some of the characters he--and we--have met before. "Only connect!" is Erickson's message, as it was Forster's before him. In the best of our worlds, the fathers and uncles of America would not be silenced; the women--enveloped in instinct and vision--would not be the only ones to sing. There would not be an America One and an America Two, but a universe that sings and we would sing with it.

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