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Discovering Victory Even in a Battle Lost : THE HEART CAN BE FILLED ANYWHERE ON EARTH by Bill Holm; Milkweed Editions $13.95, paperback; 256 pages


Bill Holm's is a classic American voice, but of a kind we haven't often heard lately. It's the voice of the prairie radical, the village agnostic, toting volumes of Walt Whitman, Henry George and Sherwood Anderson under his arm as he saunters through Minneota, Minn. (population 1,417), a farm town settled in the 1870s by his Icelandic immigrant ancestors.

As a boy, Holm says, he thought the definition of failure was "to die in Minneota." In his 30s, however, broke, divorced and unemployed, he came back to this real-life Lake Wobegon, bought a $5,000 house--it's worth even less now, he notes gleefully--taught literature at local colleges and began, in books of essays and poetry such as "Coming Home Crazy" and "The Dead Get by With Everything," to reconsider that definition.

In one of the nine lengthy essays in this book, Holm quotes Whitman: "I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer'd and slain persons. . . . I also say it is good to fail, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won."

This isn't a popular sentiment in America, where the difference between "winners" and "losers" has always been viewed as precisely a matter of spirit. But Holm has his own ideas about what those words mean.

He visits the bleak landscape of Iceland, where his forebears starved but created a great literature. Few got rich in Minneota, either, but, Holm says, "these long-dead people taught me . . . that humans can desire food, love, learning, children, adventure, beauty, a curiosity for their own history, and a sense of honor--even in poverty."

He ponders the life of Pauline Bardal, "a great failure: always poor, never married, living in a shabby, small house . . . worked as a domestic servant, formally uneducated . . . gawky and not physically beautiful . . . a badly trained musician. . . . Probably she died at 86 a virgin, the second most terrible fate, after dying broke, that can befall an American."

Yet Bardal's life, Holm shows, was part of the essential glue that held the community together, no less important or meaningful than the lives of Minneota's movers and shakers.

He ransacks the recipes of the town's cooks, the libraries of its bibliophiles, the scandals of its lovers, old photographs and home movies. He recalls Grandma Rafnsson, who baby-sat generations of Minneota children, taught them silly card games and instilled in them the confidence that adults "will love us or at least treat us civilly."

He considers Sara Kline, the town bag lady, whom his parents insisted he greet in proper Icelandic and kiss on the cheek; and his Aunt Olympia, who struggled bravely all her life to transcend poverty with movie-star airs and cheap perfume.

No fan of Republicans in general, Holm honors Valdimar Bjornson, the GOP candidate who ran against Sen. Hubert Humphrey in 1954 and lost in a campaign that was "calm, dignified, literate, full of content and completely without personal attacks on the part of either man. . . . I want to fail exactly as Valdimar did, and so do we all, if we think about it."

Holm rails against the "received ideas" and "blank optimism" of our culture, against Puritanism in matters of food and sex, against consumerism, right-wing paranoia and "the mad notion that we define and invent ourselves in isolation from any sense of from-ness or connection."

At bottom, though, he is less a railer than a connector. He is from Minneota, after all--the kind of radical whose passions run to homemade brown bread and vinarterta, an Icelandic prune cake; the kind of agnostic who still attends Lutheran services for "good stories, a history, magnificent old language, first-rate songs."

What about those of us who aren't from anywhere? That can be remedied, Holm says, if we follow William Blake's advice and heed our true desires rather than what society's hucksters make us think we want.

As for his own advice, it's the title of this book.

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