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The Southern Road to Hollywood : TEXAS SUMMER By Terry Southern , (Arcade Publishing: $17.95; 174 pp.)

February 16, 1992|Sean Mitchell | Mitchell, who writes for the Calendar section from New York, is a native of Dallas.

Terry Southern is remembered from the 1960s as an impish literary and film figure who needled the Republic and tweaked its libido in the satirical novels, "Candy" and "The Magic Christian," as well as in the screenplays, "Dr. Strangelove," "The Loved One," and "Easy Rider." In "Texas Summer," his first book in more than 20 years, he has tried to go straight.

He doesn't quite make it.

"Texas Summer" is, as its prosaic title suggests, a remembrance of things past: specifically, the small but momentous events that precipitate a 12-year-old boy's coming of age in a rural Texas town in the late 1930s. Although the events lead slowly to a violent conclusion of forced significance, the book is mostly atmosphere, evoking the bright but mysterious landscape of a country boy's half-understood world at the precise time the other half is coming into view. Fences are mended, guns acquired, deer and quail shot down, a first calf is purchased with great import, wild marijuana and the allure of women's underwear are discovered. Manhood is put to physical tests against bulls and bullies.

The narrative is thin, but Southern rests his presumably autobiographical tale on the weight of individual scenes brought vividly to life through his uncommon talent for re-creating rural dialect, both white and black, and his gift for the clinical description of nature as it was never experienced in a Walt Disney movie. When it comes time to skin a rabbit, Southern tells us what it looks like: "He managed to tear the head off and to turn the skin back on itself at the neck, so that he pulled it down over the body like a glove reversed on an unborn hand, it glistened so."

The novel is built largely on the friendship between Harold, the author's 12-year-old stand-in, and C. K., a 23-year-old black hired hand who works for Harold's father on the family farm. Despite their class differences, Harold looks up to the more worldly C. K., and as they share chores and earthy adventures, it is hard not to be reminded a little of Mark Twain's Huck and Jim.

It is from C. K. that Harold takes instruction about the wiliness of catfish, the use of a rifle, how to clean red-dirt marijuana and other essential skills needed by a young man in Texas. C. K. also knows about violence. His brother, Big Nail (so named because of a weapon he used before he owned his first knife), is doing time in the state pen for killing a man over a woman, a woman who we suspect may be bestowing her favors now on C. K. When Big Nail escapes from prison and steals home, a deadly reckoning is set in motion.

But this subplot involving Big Nail is shadowy, and it is unfortunate that the novel's conclusion turns on it. It is also unfortunate that before this occurs, the story deserts C. K. and Harold's relationship and caroms into a long show-stopping sequence at the local summer carnival, where Harold and a trouble-making buddy named Big Lawrence match wits with a crooked carny hustler, sneak backstage to find out the truth about "The Great Hermaphrodite," kidnap a chimp dubbed the Monkey Man and try to persuade a bartender to serve him a beer.

This is the Terry Southern whom readers are apt to recognize. These cartoonish scenes allow him to indulge his affinity for the geekish and grotesque, a talent announced to the world 30 years ago when he described that unforgettable coupling between the Greenwich Village hunchback and the heroine of "Candy." The antics of Big Lawrence and the Monkey Man are not quite in that league, but they make us laugh out loud and remember that the author is a record-holder in the legion of the bizarre. Still, it's as if, in the writing of this book, he rediscovered his old voice once he got to the fairgrounds and forgot that he had set out to tell a story set on a farm.

That part of "Texas Summer," the first part, plays like a hymn to Southern's own boyhood in the North Texas town of Alvarado, 30 miles south of Fort Worth. While it lacks the resonance of such comparable postwar Texas novels as Larry McMurtry's "Horseman, Pass By" or Bryan Woolley's "Some Sweet Day," the observations set down here about the simple truths of deer blinds, cotton harvests, blue northers, Negro saloons and, yes, the irresistible sight of women's underwear, ring true and testify to the enduring power of adolescent sensibilities and longings. This is one gifted farm boy's documentation of some of the things he learned down home before he grew up and moved on to the more fashionable moral preoccupations and corruptions of places such as Paris, New York and Hollywood.

It's not going to replace "Candy" or "Dr. Strangelove" as the work that best defines Southern's neon imagination, but "Texas Summer" perhaps gives us some insight into its unlikely origins on the stark North Texas prairie.

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