All the Western Stars by Philip Lee Williams (Peachtree Publishers Ltd.; $15.95, 327 pages)
We hear this tale from Jake Baker when he's a pretty old man. The time when he was 73 is already in the fairly distant past, and his story commences when many lives are already over. "All the Western Stars" begins when Jake's heartless (and ugly and boring) niece contrives to put him in an old folks' home. Until now, Jake's life has been comparatively uneventful. He once married a lady named Betty who soon left him. He worked in construction. He built his own house, lived alone--a lonely time--and now, suffering from a vitamin deficiency, he can't adequately defend himself when that mean niece takes his house and dumps him on the geriatric trash heap.
But the rooms in the old folks home have twin beds, and the author aims to make a case that life is full of surprises. Jake's roommate is Lucas Kraft, a failed, crabby, overweight American novelist who reels off his dossier to Jake: "I have published seven books of poetry, five novels and more than 70 essays. I was born in Atlanta and I suppose I shall die here. I made more than half a million dollars and lost most of it gambling and hanging around with lewd women . . . now, in the twilight of my years, I have been exiled to this dump against my will."
Naturally, this elderly odd couple soon decamp. The reader can be forgiven for assuming that "All the Western Stars" will recapitulate that popular escape novel of the '40s, "Mr. Littlejohn," or the recent movie, "Harry and Tonto," but in fact this novel is less about escape than about coming into your own true inheritance, fulfilling your appropriate destiny.
Jake's hopes and dreams are unpretentious. He's a man without a home and without a woman. He's resigned to the fact that he's going to be lonely for the rest of his life, but he's certainly not happy about it. Lucas Kraft suffers a more particular agony. For a while he was up there with Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but he has wasted his talent and believes he'll never write again. Also, Lucas was once married to Sally Crandall, a fancy film star, but the marriage fell apart, and Kraft can't be sure if it was because of his undependability or because he's physically repellent: Kraft looks like a bowling ball on sticks, and, as one of several coping devices, adapts a far-fetched, false-literary language to keep everyone he meets at an emotional distance.
Out of his despair, at least Lucas has come up with an ambition: "I want to become involved in a range war," he tells Jake. "I want to find a small town in Texas where a hated gang of villains is blackmailing the honest and hard-working ranchers. Did you ever read about Billy the Kid?"
Home at the Range
After a few plot turns, Jake and the newly named "Kid Kraft" actually do end up on a working ranch, where the owner takes them in because he's a Kraft fan and hopes that Lucas will begin to write again. Jake signs on as a lowly cook's helper, and finds, to his surprise, that up in the Big House there's a cook-housekeeper, around 50 years old, named Betty. Not only that, but down the road a piece they're making a Western movie, and danged if it don't feature Sally Crandall. . . .
The last third of the novel is lazy, and satisfying, and brings up a question that you don't often see in fiction. What happens after you escape? What do you do after your happy ending? Jake begins a sweet, low-key romance with his new Betty. But he also spends lots of time in the bunk house with the boys. He drinks, in a cheerful way, and goes for long drives with Betty and "Kid Kraft," who works everyday at writing. Betty's daughter is missing--the three cover a lot of Texas looking around for her. Also, for pure fun, Jake and Lucas disturb the peace, do a little jail time, make contact with Sally Crandall, sign on with the movie as "mountain men," get in a fistfight or two.
I'd be lying if I didn't say that sometimes "All the Western Stars" seems garrulous--a little like its narrator. But this story is subtle; it creeps up on you. Without any fanfare at all it moves through worlds, so that the weave and fabric of daily life has entirely changed from the beginning of this story to the end. That's a refreshing premise--a refreshing promise.