Undercover: Spirit in the Night (02/24/77)

James P. Girard is a writer in his early 30s who grew up in Wichita and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas; Changing All Those Changes (Yardbird Wing Editions paperback, 52 pp., $3.95), named after an old Buddy Holly song, is his first book of fiction. Set in Wichita in about 1960, the story concerns a boy named Jordan, who drives a Dodge and is in his last year of high school. He has one real friend (who has a Chrysler) and a sometime girlfriend he can no longer see, probably because on their last date the girl walked coolly into her house with her blouse buttoned up wrong. Jordan’s mother—his father is dead and his stepfather is long gone—keeps busy supplying liquor to Jordan’s younger half-sister and her friends. It is a setting in which one spends most of one’s time looking for signs of life.

…he often watched the front of Cheryl’s house, on nights when she was out with someone else, waiting for headlights to illuminate the driveway… Those were crazy, lonely nights, when he had haunted the dark and sparkling places of the city, tormenting himself with visions of unending solitude, cruising thus without purpose in the radio-haunted Dodge, circling forever to Cheryl’s house, to see if the porch light was still on. Times when it was, and he had ended up waiting with it, he had more than once thought how worse it would be to have no such end-point to circle to, however miserable he was to be there.

Cruising, which sets the tone of Girard’s little book, seemed purposeless only if one was thinking of some final, heroic destination. As Girard, with his almost invisibly elegant prose, captures it, and as I remember it, cruising was a great mystery. Setting out to drive those same roads again, alone or with a friend—always the same friend—one never knew what one would find in the night, just as this boy Jordan never knows. It wasn’t really adventure one was after, though of course that was the pretense. The mystery was bounded by familiarity—by roads, because after a year or so one had driven every road there was to drive, and by quickly discovered limits on nerve and bravado—but familiarity that focused the mystery, as did the radio, which song by song dramatized the moment, summed it up, immortalized it. The mystery had to do with possibilities of memory, shared or private, and with possibilities of conversation and silence. This, really, was what one sought: simpatico and introspection, side by side like riders in a car. If cruising was an adventure of any sort, it was an adventure of isolation, of a night’s exile; “visions of unending solitude,” as Girard writes. Without ranging far from home, one tried to take those visions as far as one could, and as often as one fell into adolescent fantasies of self-pity, as Girard’s Jordan does, one found moments of astonishing mnemonic lucidity, as he does also: As Jordan talks—to his friend, to the ever-present radio, to himself, to nothing—key memories come to the surface, and they appear, to Jordan and to the reader, as touchstones around which the boy forces himself to build an identity. He remembers, thinks through and fixes the final shape of an incident of childhood fear; a subterfuge he used, as a young child, to break up his mother’s marriage to his stepfather; his last night with his girlfriend; a minor accident—and in a kind of equation that cannot be factored, these and a few other events seem to him to constitute something like his fate. In these ordinary occurrences, he can see more than he wants to know about himself. As Bobby Vee put it, the night has a thousand eyes.

Girard’s story could, and did, happen anywhere. Still, the special quality of loneliness that is present on every page of Girard’s book—a quiet, damned belief that in some final sense one’s most important thoughts and feelings can never be shared—is something I associate with the part of the country that lies between the coasts: with Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, but particularly with the Midwest, the prairie states. It has to do with the flat, immutable inscrutability of the landscape—with the unholy stillness that can come over the plains, and with the way in which that stillness has somehow been absorbed into the bones of the people whose ancestors settled the territory. “Sometimes,” guitarist Roy Buchanan once said (speaking of a little California valley town hardly different from those of the prairie states—a town inhabited by Depression refugees from the plains), “it gets so quiet here you could fire a gun inside yourself”—and, the implication is, no one would hear it.

Loneliness and melancholy have always been at the center of American art, but this is a spirit very different from that which shapes the art of the South or the East—less assertive, and more deeply resigned. One can find it in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” in the perfect first lines of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” (“My name it is nothing/My age it means less/The country I come from/Is called the Midwest”), in Herman Melville’s John Marr, a book about the prairie exile of a former sailor, in Prairie State Blues, a collection of Bill Bergeron’s wondrously bleak comic strips, and in the photographs Robert Frank took of people along Montana highways in the Fifties. The sort of loneliness captured here speaks of Americans who, accepting isolation as a fact of life, and sure that the things that matter cannot be rightly expressed, speak only rarely, and almost always with the expectation that no one will really hear them. When such a voice is heard, though—a measured, toneless voice that in its deceptively artless rhythms recalls that prairie stillness—it can, for a time, silence others. It makes them seem like noise. This must have been the effect Girard was seeking in Changing All Those Changes; certainly, it is what he found.


Rolling Stone, February 24, 1977


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