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A Wacky Oregon Trail Mix

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A FOOL'S GOLD

A Story of Ancient Spanish Treasure, Two Pounds of Pot, and the Young Lawyer Almost Left Holding the Bag

By Bill Merritt

Bloomsbury. 280 pp. $23.95

Bill Merritt has done something that almost nobody does anymore: He's written an old-fashioned, honest-to-God shaggy-dog story. The genre is nicely defined in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: "A would-be funny story told at great length with an unexpected twist at the end. So called from the shaggy dog featured in many stories of this genre popular in the 1940s." Webster's, on the other hand, takes a rather less tolerant view: "a long-drawn-out circumstantial story concerning an insubstantial happening that impresses the teller as humorous but the hearer as boring and pointless."

All of which is to say that there are shaggy-dog stories and then there are shaggy-dog stories. Merritt's comes closer to Brewer's definition than to Webster's. Some of the time, to be sure, its humor is closer to "would-be" than actual, but it has some very funny moments, and there is, indeed, "an unexpected twist at the end." No, it doesn't have a shaggy dog, but it certainly has plenty of shaggy people.

Merritt is a veteran of the Vietnam War who wrote about his experiences there in "Where the Rivers Ran Backward" (1989), got a law degree and practiced for a number of years in Oregon, where he obviously soaked up the local atmosphere, with which "A Fool's Gold" is amply imbued. Indeed, the most interesting character in the book -- apart from Grady Jackson, about whom more in a moment -- is Oregon itself, which Merritt clearly loves and which he no less clearly believes most of us are clueless about. Driving along the coast, Merritt can get positively romantic:

"It's a pretty road. Sometimes it curls past little beaches sheltering beneath cliffs, then over fields of weathered lava where waves surge through chambers to spout into geysers thirty or forty feet into the air. Sometimes, big Pacific rollers smash against rocks so close to the road the salt spray blows over your car. Other times, the highway climbs hundreds of feet into misty forests and across rocky streams that fall away in sparkling waterfalls to the ocean below."

There's that, and there's more. A couple of decades ago, when Merritt went to work for a lawyer named Thaddeus Silk, he got a crash course in Oregoniana, including this from Silk: "The Oregon coast is just about the perfect place on the planet to bring in drugs. It's as remote as you can get and still be in the United States, and full of bays and inlets and hidden places nobody but the locals know about. And it's right next to Highway 101, so you can have your product to market as easy as if you brought it in through the port of Astoria."

So you will not be surprised to learn that Merritt quickly found himself immersed in drug cases, in particular cases having to do with Abby Birdsong, who had been "girlfriend to every single adult male, and a couple of unadult males, as well, who had ventured anywhere near the Oregon Coast." She was also "truly a Bride of the Weed." When she came to Merritt's office, "she stank of marijuana as if she stored her clothes in a smokehouse of dope," and she "carried a large straw bag that dribbled seeds as she walked."

At which point it is appropriate to quote the author's note at the front of the book: "This book isn't journalism. It is filled with made-up individuals, composite characters, and descriptions that do not match anything in the real world. If you think something in here is about you, it isn't. And, if you think you are going to make a big deal out of it, I've got plenty more on you that doesn't appear in the book, so think again." Though "A Fool's Gold" is catalogued as "memoir/true crime," it's just about impossible to figure out where memoir/true crime ends and fiction begins, or vice versa. The Grady Jackson you'll find in Google is a pro football player, and you won't find any Thaddeus Silk at all, so the advice here is to treat "A Fool's Gold" as fiction, and go with the flow.

This being a shaggy-dog story, the flow goes in many directions. For starters, Silk drops dead as the book begins, right there in the office. With no warning, Merritt finds himself inheriting Silk's caseload and, more alarming, various suspicions the cops harbor about what's in Silk's safe, his files, etc.: "By the time he hired me, he had cut so many corners he was living entirely among the curves. Even for a criminal-defense attorney, Thaddeus Silk had accumulated an ungainly roster of people who would have loved to do him in."

With that, Merritt is off and running. He has not one but two dope cases involving Abby Birdsong; the second, the cops claim, involves 4 1/2 tons of marijuana, which means that "suddenly, I was representing the biggest big-time drug lord ever taken down in Siletz County. Probably, on the entire Oregon Coast." Then there's the matter of the Spanish treasure that Silk may or may not have hidden away somewhere -- a haul that possibly could entail violations of the sunken-treasure laws -- and that may or may not have been dug up by Grady Jackson.

Ah yes, Grady Jackson, "the Crazy Man of Neahkahnie Mountain," who "spent the last ten years of his life telling everybody within earshot about strange, marked rocks, and chests filled with gold that only he knew how to find." Now in his seventies, he's a veteran who was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for bravery at Guadalcanal, "a heavy, old man with grizzled hair, a huge, flat face like a ham, and squinty pig eyes that made him look even more distrustful than he actually was." As Merritt prepares to defend Grady in court, he decides he's figured the old guy out:

"It wasn't that Grady trod a thin line between sanity and craziness, exactly. The line Grady trod looped through the beating heartland of both kingdoms, and in and out and back again. On a lot of topics, he was more than coherent. He was sharp and insightful and perfectly capable of assisting in his defense. That's the legal standard for being sane enough to stand trial: whether the defendant is capable of assisting in his own defense. But, the closer the trial date came, the less Grady seemed to think he needed defending at all."

Grady wants to dig for treasure; the state doesn't want him to. The state also doesn't want Merritt muddying the waters, and law officers constantly threaten to run him into court on one charge or another. Eventually, matters get out of hand: "Somehow, I'd gotten myself mixed up in a crime even Thaddeus hadn't managed to commit. Quite an accomplishment." But then things start to veer toward the "unexpected twist" that every shaggy-dog story requires, and as it turns out, the twist really is unexpected. It's a nice, amusing end to a nice, amusing book. Woof.

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