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Fiction in Brief

THAT CONSTANT COYOTE by Gerald Haslam (University of Nevada Press: $17.95,cloth; $10.95, paper; 197 pp.)

August 12, 1990|MICHAEL HARRIS

Put a cowboy hat on a microphone and you have Gerald Haslam, whose short stories have recorded the landscapes, the working-class customs and, above all, the voices of the Bakersfield area for two decades now. Okies, Indians, blacks and Latinos; ranchers, roughnecks and a few who got education but could never get the dust and oil and tule fog out of their blood--Haslam lets them all sound off.

"That Constant Coyote" consists of six new stories and 19 that Haslam published as long ago as 1972. It reveals the surprising width of his range and traces his development.

Since Faulkner, no regional writer has had to be ashamed of being regional, but there are other pitfalls for prospectors on virgin literary ground. In his earlier stories, Haslam seems content to pick up the easy nuggets of local color without digging for deeper ore. Trying to show what is most characteristic of his area, he focuses on earlier times and simpler people--in short, on what has become marginal, there and everywhere else. Creating a tradition from scratch, he adopts old-fashioned models: the rural realism of Steinbeck, the tall tales of Twain.

It's interesting to see how Haslam has wrestled with all this, lost a few bouts with sentimentality and a few more with awkwardness, but kept on learning and improving. His yarns in dialect happen to be some of his most finished work, as well as his funniest. His realism has grown subtler without losing its straightforward appeal.

Perhaps the best way to sum up "That Constant Coyote" is to list some of its characters:

A deaf boy who gets revenge on a bicycle-stealing bully. Okies in a Depression camp refusing Christmas charity. A New Age charlatan one generation removed from revival-tent preachers. Abused children hiding in a riverside wilderness they call "Tarzan's House."

A girl trying to transcend the family norm of boozy shiftlessness. Barroom buddies helping a newly rich friend shed a gold-digging wife. An Indian boy slain by white "savages." An anthropologist fighting against bigotry to preserve Indian languages. A henpecked man who escapes by swimming up waterfalls like a salmon. A giant farmer who, with unexpected grace, loses his county wrestling title to a black man.

A street dude steered away from San Francisco gangs by his grandfather, a former rodeo rider. An actress modeled on Mae West who meets her match in the ghost of Joaquin Murrieta. A feisty old Mexican lady teaching her grandson lessons of compassion. A solid churchgoer struggling to explain to his son why he helped burn down a Japanese neighbor's house in 1942.

Nothing trendy here; fans of postmodernist ambiguity should look elsewhere. But it took more than common empathy for Haslam to create such a diverse cast; an uncommon ear to listen to so many of these people so well.

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