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Safe With Her in the Darkness : EASTER WEEKEND by David Bottoms (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95; 198 pp.; 0-395-51528-9)

January 28, 1990|Andre Dubus III | Dubus is the author of "The Cage Keeper and Other Stories" (E.P. Dutton and New American Library.) and

In 1979, Robert Penn Warren judged the Walt Whitman Award for the Academy of American Poets and declared David Bottoms that year's winner for his collection of poems, "Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump." "In Bottoms' vision the actual world is not transformed but illuminated," Warren said, "and in his language the tang of actuality whets his compelling rhythms." Fitting words to describe Bottoms' poetry, and they can be used to describe his fiction as well.

In the opening chapter of "Easter Weekend," we are introduced to ex-boxer Connie Holtzclaw as he sits in an abandoned lodge in Macon, Ga., with a naked college-aged boy who is chained to a radiator across the room. The walls are pock-marked and drab. They depress Connie more than his Airstream trailer. But just as soon as he and his brother Carl collect the ransom money for the kid, Connie plans to put the trailer and its dreary walls behind him.

Carl, a handsome bully, is 10 years older than Connie. Clearly, the kidnaping was his idea, and he has convinced his younger brother to help him. Carl's financial worries include an $8,000 debt to local mobster Tommy Wilcox, but he also has a penchant for what he considers good clothes, fine wine and high living.

Connie's hunger is less flashy. He pines for a secure future with his girlfriend Rita Estes, a waitress at the Waffle House who aspires to be a professional painter.

"For a year or so he'd thought he could do that by letting guys punch him in the ribs and the face, but he was wrong about that. . . . Fighting was nowhere. Rita hated it. And once he figured that out, he hated it too. If it wasn't the way to Rita, why take all the hurt? Now here was a chance, crazy as it was, a chance that might give them a real start."

But Rita has slept on occasion with an accomplished painter named Charles Maddox, a man in his 50s who, Connie is convinced, is using her, getting her hopes up about an artistic talent that Connie does not really believe she possesses in the first place.

In the midst of all this human longing, we are introduced to Pop Ledford, a homeless old man whose three chapters in the book are a portrait of acceptance of his lot in life. He lives in a forgotten above-ground grave behind a magnolia thicket in Rose Hill Cemetery, not far from the river and the railroad tracks where other "hobos" camp.

But Pop keeps largely to himself, scavenging for food in the Dumpsters of local restaurants, or else lifting cassette tapes out of parked cars and pawning them for 50 cents apiece. Of his meager possessions, he owns a Walkman tape player on which he plays only gospel recordings. Pop's memory is largely gone, but when he listens to this music he sees again a red-haired woman in front of a church pulpit.

"He liked watching her hand flutter like a white moth over the page of the hymnal, rising, zagging, falling. It was writing some kind of message on the air, words you could see being written but couldn't read. It spelled something invisible that touched the eyes of the congregation, lit up their faces, and came out of their mouths as song."

Bottoms paints a gentle picture here. When Connie is out on a break from kidnap guard duty, he spies the old man in a Dumpster outside the Waffle House and offers to buy him supper. We see a gentle side of Connie as he gives Pop a brand-new button-down shirt that belongs to Carl so the street-filthy old man will be allowed into the restaurant.

There is an instant rapport between Connie and the old man. Over hamburgers, fries and coffee, we learn that Connie is on parole for a theft conviction; his parents were killed in a Montana car accident that occurred with his hard-drinking father behind the wheel; his brother Carl--mean as he is--raised him, even moving to Georgia so that Connie would not be put into a foster home. When, in some of this novel's last calm moments, the old man talks of cruelties he has encountered, as well as kindnesses like Connie's, one of the novel's essential truths is revealed:

" 'Some people are all right,' Connie said.

" 'Sometimes they are, sometimes they ain't. It's a mix. I seen a bunch of 'em, and it's a real mix.' The old man drank the last of his coffee and wiped his beard. 'And that's the problem, ain't it?' "

Devil and saint, dark and light, the faithful and the faithless. As this story's action accelerates, he examines this dual nature of ours with gentle and controlled, yet compelling, poetic vision.

"Easter Weekend's" epigraph is a line from Walt Whitman:

"Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough."

But there is a passage from one of Bottoms' own poems, "Coasting Toward Midnight at the Southeastern Fair," that would serve his novel equally well:

\o7 "We all want to break our orbits,

float like a satellite gone wild in space,

run the risk of disintegration.

We all want to take our lives into our

own hands,

and hurl them out among the stars.

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