PEEPER is not, as its title might suggest, the story of a leering sexual deviate in a steamy Texas town. It does not much associate itself with the Texas of clich,e, of high finance and sordid romance, and it does not concern voyeurism as a psychosexual phenomenon. It is instead, and rather surprisingly, a gentle pastoral comedy about a way of life and a geographical setting, the lushly fertile Rio Grande Valley.
Daniel Squire Baxter has moved to Martha, Texas, because he has tired of big-city life and high-powered newspaper work; he has resolved to work just four days a week and devote the rest of his time to expeditions on the Gulf of Mexico. The Martha Clarion concerns itself with social news, births and deaths, local commerce, but Baxter does have access to the power and considerable wealth of the town, since as newspaper editor he sits in on the meetings of the town council and the poker games that follow. As the novel opens, he welcomes to his staff a brash young woman named Jamie Scarborough, who is determined to become, as she says, a newspaperman. At about the same time occur in Martha the first appearances of a mysterious and idiosyncratic Peeping Tom.
The narrative cleverly advances itself by alternating between Baxter's viewpoint and that of the unnamed peeper. He has started peeping out of a love for Texas women and an almost purely esthetic appreciation for women's bodies--he begins with the town's most beautiful women, leaving each an appropriate gift--but finds himself continuing for other reasons. In a town that centers on commerce, he feels that human relationships are the most worthwhile part of life, and that Martha's women, unappreciated by their men, have a great talent for them. He finds that he comes really to know the women as he sees their bodies, that he appreciates them more when he meets them elsewhere, that peeping is an ennobling experience that allows him to love women and understand them.
Equally interesting is the reaction of the townspeople. The men, predictably, are outraged, partly because someone is seeing their women and partly, one suspects, because they envy him all he is seeing. Many of the women, however, are not even particularly upset. They leave their shades open when the police chief wants them shut; they plainly confess that they don't see what harm the peeper is doing; they appreciate the attention he is giving them and that, subsequently, other men give. They have a kind of collective romance with the peeper, seem to understand him; they all become sexier and appreciate themselves more. As more than one person notes, the peeper brings the whole town to life.
Many of the novel's strongest scenes belong to Baxter and have little enough to do with this amusing drama, though they never seem obtrusive or superfluous. Baxter is a man with a deep love for the Rio Grande Valley, for its abundant produce, for the river and the surrounding countryside, for long days out on the Gulf. He is also a man who loves newspaper work, even its most trivial details, and he is a born teacher, anxious to instruct his novice reporter. Like many such relationships, this one has an undercurrent of eroticism, which the independent Baxter is almost reluctant to see develop. The novel's richest scenes occur as Baxter teaches Jamie to cover the produce market and they picnic by the fields, as he sails his Grand Banks 36, as he teaches her the mechanics of writing and of printing a news story. Brinkley's novel is as much about a place as it is a situation, and his considerable descriptive powers bring it brightly to life.
It is also through Baxter that the novel's most serious question is raised, that of the relationship between a community and its newspaper. The situation, of course, is comic and trivial, but the problem is real enough: The members of the town council virtually support the newspaper with their advertising, and they do not want the peeper story covered. In this conflict in miniature are raised questions that any newspaper faces: To what extent should a newspaper reflect the opinions of a community and to what extent should it stand as its conscience? Is a single editor or even an editorial staff an appropriate arbiter of what should or should not be covered? How far should a member of the community go in supporting a paper that does not agree with him? Such questions, as the narrative shows, have no easy answers.
What kept running through my mind as I read this novel was the facile distinction that is often made between literary and commercial fiction. Probably Peeper --because it is largely a light comedy, and because William Brinkley's Don't Go Near the Water was a best seller--will be considered commercial, yet it has virtues that many a literary novelist would do well to imitate: immaculate construction, a swift and vivid style, a wealth of descriptive detail. Brinkley is particularly adept at the concise portrayal of a wide range of characters.
Peeper can seem soft in places, and contrived--a couple of the town council meetings struck me as stagey, and the peeper had too easy a time seeing too many women who were rather too beautiful--but it seems to admit to such possibilities by subtitling itself "A Comedy," essentially a stagey genre. It is a love story, and also a mystery, as the town and the reader pursue the peeper's identity. Peeper is not a deep novel, but it is often deeply felt, and it seems the work of a man who would not be ashamed--would be proud, in fact--to be called a professional.