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Going Straight in Montana : THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE by James Lee Burke (Henry Holt: $8.95, paperback; 241 pp.)

December 20, 1987|Miles Beller | Beller, television critic for The Hollywood Reporter, recently completed a novel called "A Still Life." and

Can't judge a cover by its book. Case in point: "The Lost Get-Back Boogie" by James Lee Burke. For after finishing this brief but accomplished novel, the montage image on the cover (a cowboy on horseback gazing at a shack dwarfed by an enormous, reposing hollow-body guitar) loses its Monty Python connotations. Ka-boom goes the initial impulse to interpret "Boogie's" cover as visual embodiment of the inside manuscript's gonzo nature, that is, see it as a pictorial presentation of a Tom Robbins-esque, askew sensibility concerning cowgirls getting the blues and other off-beat urban Western matters.

Indeed, Burke's basic "Boogie" aims for a life rhythm that's prosaic rather than peculiar. Quite so, he lavishes much attention on the mundane as a means of conveying the extraordinary circumstance found in any life that's singled out and minutely picked over.

And in "Boogie," taking place in 1962, barroom guitarist/ex-Korean war vet and ex-con Iry Paret is the life observed. Just let out of Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary after doing two years for manslaughter, Paret resolves to forget about what was and devote himself to what could be. After all, the man he killed wasn't really an innocent, but more nearly a fellow looking for trouble who happened to find it.

Now, to fulfill terms of parole, Paret says goodby to his native South (this following a couple of dead-end jobs) and heads for Montana to work for Frank Riordan, father of former prison confrere Buddy Riordan.

Yet life as a ranch hand doesn't shape up to be a modern-day stay at the Cartwrights' Ponderosa. For Paret soon learns that old man Riordan has drawn the hot ire of most of his neighbors who work at a pulp mill, having gone to court to shut the plant down because of noxious fumes. Consequently, once town folk discover Paret is employed by the Riordans, he suffers some strong unpleasantness, including demolition of his truck, a few savage blows to his person and a Southerner-go-home reception from the local sheriff, who pledges to return Paret to prison. (This vow is prompted by Paret's having unloaded a fusillade of shells into pulp mill trucks, an act of vengeance for the make-my-day treatment accorded his truck and torso.)

As animosity between the Riordans and resentful mill workers deepens, another plot gains momentum--Paret's assignations with Buddy's ex-wife, Beth, a romance delineated as made in red-neck heaven.

By "Boogie's" final shuffle, much mental anguish has been turned into violent acts, people picking up firearms with the casualness of kids swatting at jacks. Thus violence begets a resolution, author Burke swooping in with a kind of cowboy deus ex machina and finishing off his dirt under-the-fingernails exercise in regional realism.

Though Burke trades on some all-too-simple stage properties of current fiction to fully work his craft--e.g. dreamers adrift in a godless land, the sort of sentiments the average country-and-Western song sanctifies--he can write with the stab of true, unflinching honesty. At his best, Burke's sharp, swift sentences convey a multiplicity of meaning, an assured understanding of possibilities and the consequence of choices. Indeed, when in top form, Burke makes us see a tangle of principles and ideals tumbling and spinning, rubbing raw against the other, romantic slick notions of the "cowboy loner" buffeted by the sure, hard knowledge of divorce, desertion and drunken ruin.

When Burke describes a confrontation between Paret and the sheriff, his facility for getting at essentials strikes a literary and psychological bull's-eye. "I walked up the rock road toward the blacktop, smoking a cigarette, and he drove along beside me in first gear with his fat arm over the window, the doubt and anger still stamped in his face, and I was glad no one could see this sad comedy of two grown men acting out a ludicrous exercise in a mountain wilderness so that one of them could go home with a piece of scalp lock to keep his pride intact."

Telling a story so it succeeds as more than an approximation of a thing but as the thing itself (scripted incidents and events eliciting responses felt in life), such is the sought-after capstone of James Lee Burke's no-nonsense realism. And though "The Lost Get-Back Boogie" is flawed by loose ends knotting at just the right juncture to produce a happy-ever-after conclusion, it is a vital reworking of an American myth, a sobering meditation on the hazards of romantic, idealized actions in an imperfect world.

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