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On the Road Again : THE WHISTLING SONG, By Stephen Beachy (W. W. Norton: $19.95; 393 pp.)

August 18, 1991|Mark Childress | Childress is the author of "A World Made of Fire," "V for Victor" and "Tender." He lives in San Francisco, where he is writing his fourth novel

Imagine an America full of women bearing baked goods who hold hands in circles and sing "Kum Ba Ya." A nation of hellish highways flanked by underwear billboards, 24-hour doughnut shops, porn movies called "Paradise Lost," Quik Marts, raving lunatics and orphans wandering in circles quoting Kierkegaard. This is the world of the road that Stephen Beachy has conjured in his surreal and ambitious first novel, "The Whistling Song."

It is mostly a cold, friendless place, the America in which our orphan hero Matt finds himself, a country full of "candles and masks, the Beach Boys and bones, the monstrous expanse of childhood time anarchic and clumsy and tearing through fields, spilling pulp and confetti, overflowing the tub. Shattering hourglasses, sand on our toes."

The structure of the story, as far as one can make it out through thickets of supercharged Kerouackian prose, is a classic one: An orphan sets out on a quest to find himself, his past and future, the Meaning of Life.

In the novel's lushly overgrown opening passage, we learn of Matt's earliest memory, a bubble bath under the ministrations of Andalusia, his "large, walnut-skinned" baby sitter. Andalusia's "spicy aroma, nutmeg and cloves," stays with Matt forever. He spends his life searching for her, dreaming of "a glorious reunion, three frenzied days and nights of lovemaking as the sun stands still."

Matt's parents are swiftly introduced and then brutally murdered by a mysterious someone. Matt is sent to an orphanage in East Liberty, Iowa, where he is befriended by Jimmy, a mysterious, beautiful black boy who rarely says much but introduces Matt to a life of petty crime. The boys sneak out of the orphanage at night to plunder homes in the nearby town, committing mindless acts of minor vandalism. One day Jimmy uses a stolen gun to commit something major, and the boys are forced to hit the road.

From this point, the story becomes picaresque, a recurring roller-coaster ride around the dark highways of America, in no particular direction. Matt and Jimmy travel on their wits and their outstretched thumbs. Jimmy steals food; Matt steals books, the better to quote from Kierkegaard. Theirs is "a trip without destination, an escape from solidity, a blur," as Matt reflects.

Jimmy, like the lost Andalusia, is more a symbol of Matt's fervent longing than a real human character. He remains nearly silent throughout, and he's not just amoral: Like a character in a Jim Jarmusch film, he doesn't even seem to know that morality exists.

The boys get from point A to point B by hustling rides from an endless string of visionaries and miscreants who offer up urgent confessions of their lives as soon as they open the car door.

Matt persuades a weird Christian fanatic named Cain to carve a cross in his hand with a knife, and later lives with a dying voluptuary named Dust, who wants only to touch someone young as he dies. Jimmy takes up with a punkette named Melissa who feeds the boys Cheetos, Diet Coke, Cinemax and the music of the rock band Bad Food. Matt and Jimmy take $150 from a man who wants to be sexually degraded. Matt nearly falls in love with an anorexic girl named Frita Bob, and then doesn't--his true longings are for Jimmy, and the lost Andalusia. The secondary characters pop up vividly and then are discarded, like snapshots flung from a fast-moving car.

On the streets of St. Louis, Matt meets up with none other than Jim Morrison, now a wizened old homeless man who squats in alleys and goes by the name of Traveler. "I once formed a rock-and-roll band in Los Angeles," he reveals. "I managed to produce several pop hits and a few quite disturbing and poetic tunes, if I do say so myself. I was looked on as a messiah by screaming teen-age girls, became a prophet of sex and earth. Cosmic transformation seemed just within reach."

It is never quite clear in Beachy's story whether something is actually happening, whether that's really Jim Morrison and if so, whether that means anything. Are we supposed to care now, or hold on for further revelations? It's a tricky thing he's trying to pull off, a kind of Cubist fiction, deconstruction by the fire of prose. The characters proclaim their emptiness and despair at great length, the world seems a wild and shattered place, but not much ever happens. The connections are intellectual, not emotional. Don't worry, the author seems to be saying, it may not add up in the end, but it's like American life in the '80s--it feels like the real thing.

If clarity is not the author's prime concern, though, his approach results in bright flashes of insight and beautiful writing. Here is Matt shoplifting a toothbrush: "What a vertiginous drugstore it was, round mirrors overhead and swiveling cameras pushing me down toward the black-and-white checkered floor. I moved myself strategically, a bishop roaming diagonally. . . ." This is bold, showy writing, and there are many things worse in American literature than the desire to be bold, to get on our nerves by revealing the unpretty side of things.

Beachy's writing has confidence, freshness and the buzzy energy of a cup of truck-stop coffee. His future will be fun to watch.

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