Within the category of fiction about growing up in America, there has appeared a subcategory that might be called the "Texas small-town highschool-boy" novel. Although the best known may be Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show, the best of the class, in my estimation, is C. W. Smith refuses to sentimentalize or stereotype his characters. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the latest addition to the list, Bryan Wolley's Time and Place, a work that, despite certain strengths, fails to break through its own limitations.
The time is the summer of 1952; the place, Ft. Appleby, a hamlet of 800 persons in west Texas. Two friends, Jasper Birdson and Kevin Adams, are anticipating their senior year when polio invades their town and Jasper is stricken. For Kevin, who wants to be a writer, the epidemic signals the overturning of old ways and the beginning of manhood.
Chief among the novel's virtues is Woolley's style; he writes taut, spare prose that is powerful in its simplicity, and he knows how to create the feeling of time and place. Also, the uneasy relationship between Anglos and "Meskins" in small Texas towns is handled with understanding and without sentimentality.
Yet Time and Place is a flawed novel. The availability of women to Devin strains credulity; there is even the stereotypical Mexican maid to provide his sexual initiations (and how much more complicated that she should be the mother of the girl Kevin really loves). More important, the changes that are supposed to take place in Kevin over the year are not made believable, and the reader does not understand why he makes the choices he does.
Ultimately, the book's greatest limitation is simply that it is a story we've heard so many times before, even in such similar words, that we may be pardoned for being bored by hearing it again. Despite its vast spaces, Texas is an urbanized state, having within its borders three of the ten largest cities in the United States. Yet few of its writers - McMurtry, Edwin Shrake, and Dan Jenkins are obvious exceptions - have chronicled the urban experience there or even employed urban settings. One has to wonder why no Texas writer is currently making use of the expansive, good-natured craziness of Houston or the schizophrenia of Dallas - not so much a city as one enormous suburban shopping center. Maybe it's time to stake the manure off the boots and trade them in on a pair of Gucci loafers. (Dutton, $8.95)