In the endless parched flatness of West Texas, a voice sometimes breaks through the country music on the car radio: "News from Texas!"
As an afterthought, the announcer adds: "And the world."
Texas itself contains many worlds, often much more fantastic than those colored dots on the screen in "Dallas." Sophia Healy's first novel, "Lone Stars," brings us news from a tiny, exotic colony of Polish emigres in southern Texas.
Mainly, the novel draws the portrait of Stas, a melancholy Pole married to Lupe, a much younger Mexican-American woman.
Both Stas and Lupe are painters. But as Lupe's star rises, his falls. She wants to have children; he sinks into a rather pleasurable gloom.
"Your paintings just go on and on," his art dealer complains. She is another Pole, his glamorous ex-mistress Gosia.
"I want my paintings to look totally without presumption, to flow . . . like a river without end, on which events pass simply and serenely," Stas tells her.
"I can't sell these, Stas."
The joke of it is that Stas the failed artist has become miraculously successful as a speculator in the stock market.
"Lone Stars" is a collection of set pieces--short chapters, scenes, vignettes, telephone conversations--that are frequently witty, bizarre, or beautiful. Reading it is like walking through a picture gallery.
Visual imagery is strong. A fan-tail palm frond resembles "a dark green comb splayed in Lupe's blue-black hair." A vaseful of white gladioli form "an arc against the framed white landscape in the window"; their faded petals look like "folded kidskin gloves."
This pictorial eye isn't surprising, as Healy's own visual art has been exhibitedinternationally. She has also taught drawing and paper making at Bennington College, and she clearly possesses an insider's knowledge of the provincial art world. (She has homes in both Vermont and Florida.)
Healy skillfully creates with words a sense of abstract paintings. Stas' unsalable works are "vast golden surfaces," reminiscent of Watteau's bittersweet masterpiece on the subject of love, "The Embarkation for Cythera." Lupe's palette, on the other hand, runs to different colors. She prefers pale green, gray and ruby red, and she mixes sand with her paint.
The strains in their marriage are expressed also through minor characters such as Lupe's family, especially her mother, Concepcion, a folk doctor or curandera. Counterbalancing the Mexican connection is the Eastern European one: Gosia; Maciej, another Polish exile; Vassily, a mercurial Soviet emigre and sometime costume designer for a rock group called the Radon Sisters.
The main event of the novel is a trip that Lupe makes alone. She travels from the countryside near San Antonio, where she and Stas live beside a river, to the glitter of Houston and the clutches of Gosia. The seductive Gosia is Lupe's dealer, too, and is sponsoring Lupe's first one-woman show.
"Lone Stars" is a love story with some unpredictable twists and a refreshing ending. It also deals amusingly with the subject of art, both visual and verbal.
Like Stas, the book is rich in quirks. For such a short novel, almost a novella, it is loaded with themes and motifs: old cars, scraps of conversational Spanish and Polish, food, investment transactions, European literature, Stas' naps, folk medicine. And there are flaws. Occasionally the ethnic, erotic and cultural soup seems a bit thick, and the Mexican characters verge on cuteness. A touch of acid might improve the brew.
For this novel is deeply romantic. It contains as many declarations of love (somewhat outnumbering the vivid sex scenes) as a sonnet sequence. It brings news from a Texas without ugliness, poverty, racial tension, violence or recession. Playing the market, Stas spins gold from straw; there is no crash here. Even the art community seems benign. We are in a place where infidelity is an aesthetic experience, where love becomes "a substance in the air."
It's the world of sophisticated comedy, an islet like the one in Watteau's painting, ruled not by men in cowboy hats but by a power (also potent in "Dallas") called Venus.