LUCIUS HUTCHFIELD sits in a crumbling silo at night somewhere in Appalachia, writing in his head. He's always writing. This time it's the story of a shadowy old maid seduced 60 years earlier by Jesse James.
Maybe Zara Ransom told Lucius the story herself. Maybe she still lives in her "decrepit Xanadu," the nearby Blue Goose Hotel. Since truth is a matter of perception, Lucius often chooses more of everything.
"Shining through the breaks in the roof of the silo, the moon, I thought, fell on one of the few remaining romantics, I've always seen everything in my life by the light of a full moon. "The unmoonlit life is not worth living'. The only gospel I ever took to my heart is the gospel of dreams."
Among other themes, Pleasure-Dome ponders this "surrender" of Lucius Hutchfield to the Coleridge syndrome, intoxication by imagination. Lucius is the same young lover of illusion who worked in the movie house that gave David Madden's novel Bijou (1974) its title. Since then he may have expanded his romatic references beyond films and Thomas Wolfe, but he is still hooked on the narcotic of fantasy and its intellectual superior, art.
As he wanders over the ruins of Zara's life and begins fabricating Jesse James stories to amaze a local motorcycle cowboy, Lucius locates the center of Madden's concern in writing a novel that often seems to be about the act of writing a novel;
"Everyday life is an effort to disentangle facts and illusions. Those are rare moments in our lives when we transcend captivity in fact-and-illusion through pure imagination and dwell in the Pleasure-Dome, a luminous limbo between everyday experience and a work of art. There is only one Pleasure -Dome, but when we enter it, we feel it is ours alone."
This Pleasure-Dome that captivates Lucius-Hutchfield/David Madden is "a zone of being where the facts and illusions of everyday life and the problem of making distinctions between them were irrelevant." So too with this exhilarating novel that starts as one wild yarn after another featuring Lucius, his brothers Bucky and Earl, and associated storekeepers and sheriffs, drum majorettes and juvenile delinquents, crooked lawyers and wayward wives.
Lately of the cargo ship Polestar and countless rejection slips, Lucius is conducting a heroic campaign through the mid-South to save Bucky from the chain gang. Bucky is a rubber-check specialist. Lucius tries to soothe Bucky's punitive victims with promises of restitution and stories of poor Bucky's lousy upbringing. These oral fictions only prove that Lucius can enchant ignorant strangers and his minor promise as a writer. The supreme con artist of the family, big brother Earl, puts to shame the reality claims of Lucas' "art" by springing Bucky with a super lie. Earl even talks the tearful judge into taking a bad check.
By the time Madden stumbles (accidents, not logic, run Plearsure-Dome ) on the Zara Ransom-Jesse James sequence, it's clear that Pleasure-Dome ) is a writer's notebook of plot possibilities, social observations, narrative lines, character sketches and his own sentiments about the meaning of his craft or art.
The framework of Bucky's rescue from jail holds a few stories meant to be believed, but others are tried on for emotional or esthetic fit. The same is true of Madden's extended tale of Zara's moonlight romance with the gallant stranger.
The "true" events are simple; Lucius' car breaks down in one of the crazy zones of Tennessee. He hears about a teched old woman who invokes the name of Jesse James. Lucius dreams up stories in a silo that convince a young stud he is heir to the James mystique, which quickly gets the kid behind bars (a variation on the Bucky story). The old woman dies in a fire. The other wild yarns and events -- fake train robberies, slick escapes, gothic interviews, wrecked automobiles, tacky adventures, flooded towns -- may or may not have happened. They're a writer's embellishments. The watchful reader enters into the game of selecting reality, of which there is none of course, since Pleasure-Dome is fiction, even though Madden delivers it as autobiography.
What we have in Pleasure-Dome are stories within other stories within the story of Lucius' wanderings -- a novel that resembles a set of nesting boxes. And the box-maker laconically comments on the fit and use of his materials as we move to the ultimate point: nostalgic regret that life is short, and death kills the imagination.
One hundred pages into Pleasure-Dome I thought it was one of the few novels I couldn't force myself to finish. Madden seems incapable of controlling his impulses to collect scenes, a writer writing with nothing to say.
But Madden's playfulness turns serious, as Robert Frost told us art must.
At exactly the right point -- with a town and a life doomed -- his novel becomes an elaborate, serio-comic commentary on U.S. middle-class trash culture, the crazy tyranny of families, and the marvel that human beings should make and take pleasure in art.
Pleasure-Dome is troublesome, demanding and sometimes a bore. But at its height it is indeed a work of art, lending "nothing but the highest quality to your moments," as Lucius quotes Victor Hugo in celebration of art. David Madden is a novelist for the head as well as the heart.