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AN AMERICAN CHILD SUPREME The Education of a Liberation Ecologist by John Nichols; Milkweed: 197 pp., $14

THE VOICE OF THE BUTTERFLY A Novel By John Nichols; Chronicle Books: 240 pp., $24.95

July 22, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

AN AMERICAN CHILD SUPREME The Education of a Liberation Ecologist by John Nichols; Milkweed: 197 pp., $14

John Nichols, in case you don't already know him, is the author of 18 books (most famously "The Milagro Beanfield War"), countless essays and stories and several screenplays (most famously "Missing"). He is a Godforsaken mountain of American conflict, spiritual doubt, political duality and gender confusion. Like a pioneer, he keeps lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest, gets lost in the desert and comes up in the hills. You don't read him in the passive sense when you pick up one of his books; you get slapped around by him. His language is fast and furious; his targets in order of rage are: capitalists, developers and politicians.

This memoir, this credo, reveals a tender, overprotected rich kid growing up on 600 Long Island acres that had been in his family since the 1700s. As a child, he was surrounded by gentlemen naturalists, full of the importance of their own lineage. Nichols was raised to believe that his history and the history of the land that his family owned on the once lovely south shore of Long Island were vitally intertwined.

"My generation was called the Silent Generation." Some time after college, his best friends took off for Guatemala, dragged him down for a visit and politicized the hell out of him. That was 1964, and he was 24. It was the best thing and the worst thing that could have happened to John Nichols. Already embarrassed by his wealth, he left Guatemala with nothing to say. He had already written "The Sterile Cuckoo" but couldn't squeak much else out in the next decade while he debated the relative merits of art versus politics against the backdrop of Vietnam.

Moving to New Mexico gave him a real backyard in which to try out his principles. It gave him people to love and admire and freed him from the rich relations, once and for all. He wrote "The Milagro Beanfield War," published in 1974, in which art and politics live happily side by side. "It salvaged my life as a writer." Then there was the success problem. So he crept back into a cave for a while. From the opening, he watched the environmental degradation of the planet and his own backyard. That is what he has written about since.

"An American Child Supreme" shows how Nichols became a liberation ecologist: "Liberation ecology, the militant arm of social ecology, recognizes that all life is sacred and that nothing short of total revolution based on bio-centric ideas and human equality can save the planet." Fortunately for us, this book is more humble than your average manifesto (part of a new series of books by Milkweed called Credo). Nichols is awed by the mystery of how any human being in our day and age can rise above greed and self-interest to create or care for anything else. "Whatever else my shortcomings, I persisted in what I loved, and what I loved discovered a way to speak beyond the self. As far as I know, that is when art becomes worthwhile."

THE VOICE OF THE BUTTERFLY A Novel By John Nichols; Chronicle Books: 240 pp., $24.95

And here is the novel that makes liberation ecology look like fun. Charley McFarland, potty-mouth librarian in Suicide City, USA, forms his 200th alliance against the forces of capitalist evil. A group of whiter-than-thou developers and bankers is planning to bulldoze the home of the last endangered phistic copper butterflies. Charley half-expects his usual failure, but he rounds up his homeless, addicted wife, Kelly; his "heavy metal puppet" son Luther; a 92-year-old lefty named Lydia Babcock ("my favorite shrew"); and a few others to save the butterfly.

These characters take a bit of persuading: "I don't want to be a political person, Pop," whines Luther. "Look at you. It's a miserable life of constant defeat and humiliation. You yell and scream and march and protest and picket and eat organic food and still a hundred species go extinct every day." Charley favors a left-wing, Rush Limbaugh-style media strategy, which sends a lot of language flying around, not all of it wholesome. Charley is practicing tough love on Kelly and trying to save the moral fiber of his son, so it's a story about family in the middle of social conscience and resistance as well. "What does the butterfly do?" a local philistine asks Charley. "What good is it?"

There's an answer in the novel. That's the thing about Nichols. Unlike a lot of complainers, for every question Nichols raises, he has an answer because he's spent his life asking questions. You just have to pull them out from under the burning house of his high-octane prose. "Do I delight in the rhetoric of destruction?" he asks. "Who--me? Charley McFarland, all-around Boy Scout, liberation ecologist, Compassion Personified? You better believe it. Hail to all meretricious rococo lingo!"

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