San Francisco poet and editor Barry Gifford has produced a first novel of distinct and lingering pleasures. Designed after the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a collection of subtly didactic tales in which essay and narrative are playfully blended, Landscape consists of one remarkable man's account of a life dedicated to that most difficult of propositions, the pursuit of happiness. "In fact," the narrator confesses, from the perspective of his 48th year, "the only ambition I ever had was to be happy." How demanding such an ambition must be, particularly when conceived in such blunt terms, is easy to imagine (John Stuart Mill was not alone in warning man against even considering the happiness of his life), but it is the particular shape of the pursuit, the strangness of the path taken that draws us so irresistibly into this traveler's world.
The journey of Francis Reeves begins in the Deep South, Baton Rouge in the '30s and early '40s, a place and time that remain for him the Golden Age, impossible to regain. Here, against the warm and sensual background of the region, he makes those first discoveries of friendship, sex, and love, along with their attendant pains and pleasure. A question carelessly put to him by his father, "Who do you love the most, Francis, your mother or me?" throws the young boy into a state of painful confusion from which he will never completely recover. Life, he realizes, must be a careful balancing of impossibly opposing demands, a skill demanding detachment and distance. But, for the most part, life is pleasurable, and the childhood episodes he relates are rich, earthy, comic. Slowly the young boy's diverse sexual interests ("til puberty I was omnisexual") acquire a more exclusively homosexual focus, but his sense of difference remains remarkably untainted by guilt. In fact, the strength of self-acceptance, not sexual preference, marks Reeves as a truly different man, an individual.
Self-acceptance might well be the central mystery of this short, resonant novel, the mystery of why some do and some do not possess it, the mystery of its acquistion and its preservation. Guifford wisely avoids facile or fashionable explanations. Perhaps, as he has his protagonist suggest, the key lies in the Socratic notion of learning, learning as remembering -- in this case, remembering who and what we are. But the path to knowledge is not easy, others confuse us, and certainly we confuse ourselves. We are distracted and often forget. Reeves passes through the ritual stations of American life -- college, a two-year stint in the Navy, even a "normal" marriage -- and does so with confidence, success, but also with a strong, private sense that institutions attempt to shape and define us more forcefully than we should allow. Reeves' triump is his ability to find space within the institutions, a topos of pleasure, freedom and growth.
Institutions do not pose the greatest challenge to his happiness, however. It is with Ilya, a roguish and amoral American whom Reeves meets in Greece, that he faces the overwhelming, almost demonic power of passionate love. With Ilya, he comes as close as ever to losing the control and detachment he has so carefully cultivated. And, finally, it is by breaking with Ilya that he experiences the keenest, sharpest pain.
Pain, though, initiates Reeves into another mystery, that of time. Its passage and workings come to absorb him, now returned to the States, as he endures a nine-year marriage of convenience with a woman, Ada, whom he had befriended in Europe. The growing need for solitude spells the inevitable end to this marriage, but the ending coincides with the beginning of the other important relationship of the novel -- his friendship with a young West Coast poet named Jim. At first an epistolary relationship based largely on shared literary tastes, it soon develops more personal dimensions, particularly after Jim, a husband and father, visits Reeves in New York. Together, they enjoy that richest of human consolations, long and intimate conversations. Later, when Jim undergoes a marital crisis, Reeves observes a difficult but judicious distance, refusing to counsel anything more than honesty of feelings. Nevertheless, Reeves' presence as friend (and modestly reluctant avatar?) seems to play an intangible though important part in the eventual reconcillation. Though perhaps too elliptically treated -- Guifford, like his protagonist, tends to understatement, but less is not always more -- the depiction of this relationship reminds us, and in a way that few contemporary novels have reminded us, that friendship can be miraculous.
Be mindful: That perhaps is the trick to life, the trick never fully mastered. "I wonder whether loving someone isn't simply paying attention to him," muses Francis Reeves. Most certainly; and doesn't the same apply to loving one's life? Landsape with Traveler is rich with such musings, as well as humor and a touchingly elegiac sense of the past. For reminding us so artfully of the difficult simplicities, reminding us of what we already know, Francis Reeves will become a part of our landscape, small but significant.