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FICTION : DESERT LIGHT by Chilton Williamson (St. Martin's: $15.95; 240 pp.).

July 19, 1987|Don Campbell

In Chilton Williamson's promising first novel, we have a character study of a self-destructive man wrestling with his own cynicism, and the bigger issues of guilt, love and his crying need for reformation. In protagonist Chuck Richardson, Williamson has created a brilliant dropout from the big city legal fraternity who seeks solace in rural Wyoming, in alcohol and in casual, pick-up sex. If self-destruction is Richardson's bag, he has shaped it into a high art form. But then, at the insistence of the local prosecutor, Richardson returns to the fold to assist in the prosecution of a trio of minor-league drug dealers accused of a pair of brutal murders, and he would seem to be well on the way back to the legal and personal straight-and-narrow. But let's not underestimate that self-destructive streak that clings to Richardson like a hair-shirt. Convinced that the girl-defendant, Jenny, is innocent--or at least less culpable than her hardened companions--Richardson does a legal about-face, drops off the prosecution team, sets himself up as her defense lawyer, gets her out on bail, beds her, and illegally crosses a state line with her to try to reconcile Jenny with her stiff-backed parents. Your standard defense attorney tactics.

In his initial run at the novel form, Williamson proves himself a stylish writer with a deft touch in creating three-dimensional characters, in bringing the bleak beauty of the Wyoming outback to vivid life and in devising nice plot twists. But some of his protagonist's self-destructiveness rubs off on author Williamson, too. Having brought his central characters to a climax that, while not all-resolving, is perfectly acceptable, why, oh why, did he feel compelled to throw in a final, one-page, 11-line, chapter incorporating a bit of action that so defies analysis . . . is so enigmatic and cryptic that the puzzled reader may spend fully as much time rereading those 11 lines looking for meaning as he spends on the rest of the novel? A pity.

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