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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

A Journey of Risks and Revelations

LOOKING FOR MO by Dan Duane, Farrar, Straus & Giroux $22, 230 pages

July 13, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The two axes on which a true California writer plots his or her curve are distance and risk. "Looking for Mo" is an outdoor book, a book of distances, risks and revelations. Here at my desk in downtown L.A., I can only imagine the oxygen its characters breathe. When you read this, on the couch, on the bus, notice where you are, inside and outside. Stop rolling your eyes. Just do it.

Some people can't stop talking; some people can't stop eating. Dan Duane is a rabid noticer; he can't stop noticing everything. His narrator, Ray Connelly, is collecting data for life, so his author gives him a lot of good material. Ray is a writer caught in the grisly maw of sending his manuscript out to publishers and receiving, in return, the thin envelopes of their contempt.

His book is about his amazing friend Mo, the life-living, fun-seeking, message-bearing alter ego, whose daily life contains more good stories than most of us could dredge up in a decade. When Ray includes some of these stories in his book and sends the book off to Sloth Ridge Press (where Mo's father is the publisher), he receives a nasty letter from Mo Sr., saying, basically, how dare he use Mo's stories.

More important, Ray is waiting out the days in San Francisco for Mo to return from Baja so that they can make a second attempt to climb Yosemite's El Capitan. The first attempt failed because Ray got scared, and the failure dogs him. On the other side of the behavioral spectrum is his cheerful, BMW-driving roommate, Evan, poised on the brink of marriage. Evan can keep a real job. Evan can fall in love. Ray is moving in this direction--he meets Fiona and begins to fall in love--but he must lodge a bit of Mo in himself, if only to make sure that daily life sparkles with some semblance of intensity and meaning.

So the friends must get together, agree to make the climb and resolve the question of who owns Mo's stories. Ray has to sort out in general who owns what stories and how to treat other people's stories. Maybe he has to make some stories of his own. On their second night out together, Fiona tells Ray about her mother's death one month earlier, but Ray races off unceremoniously after the telling because he has heard that Mo is in town, causing a hint of bile to travel the wrong way up the reader's digestive tract.

This is Duane's first novel. His previous two books were "Lighting Out: A Vision of California and the Mountains" and "Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast." After "Caught Inside," Esquire magazine named him the spokesperson for Generation X, but that is hooey. He's much better than that and will last much longer.

Duane doesn't write books about doing what feels right, dude, he writes books about telling the truth, as it is gleaned from being outside. Generation X can float through cyberspace without ever experiencing the fear and physical pain that Duane describes in his glorious chapters on climbing El Capitan ("Think about that," Mo says at one point to Ray. "Having an actual experience. It's practically outdated.").

In these chapters, Duane reveals himself as a California writer, strung up between distance and risk. By distance, I mean distance to the nearest familiar object, and by risk, I mean willingness to play with that distance, to try to change or even control it. The object can be a woman in a cafe, like Fiona, or it can be a mountain, like El Capitan. Both must be approached carefully, with utmost consideration and respect. "I saw at last a bonsai California," thinks Ray, just below the summit, after a harrowing storm. "From this diamond in the spine of the state, the golden sky poured westward across California's Kansas, eddied among the hot and quiet coastal range, and gushed through redwood canyons to the kelpy sea, all from this center I'd defined by a jar on a hill--Sierra my soul's axis, and that home in the fog awaiting far beyond."

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