IT'S HARD TO say whether Crazy Heart is a novel about a burned-out country singing star who is an alcoholic or about an alcoholic who happens to be a burned-out country singing star. Either way, Thomas Cobb's first novel is a stunning example of style, craft and it.
The hero of Crazy Heart is a 56-year-old country musician named Bad Blake, who in the course of 40 years of picking and singing and playing the big spots and the lowlife bars has gone through four wives and a son and a small fortune. As we meet him, he sports 30 pounds of extra belly, lungs full of sick yellow Pall Mall residue, a liver hard and full from Jack Daniel's, dangerously high blood pressure, and that odd combination so frequently found in celebrities on the top and at the bottom: egomania and an inferiority complex.
It's not a comeback book by any means. It opens with Bad on the road, playing three nights at a bowling alley, always balking at the financial constraints imposed on him by an agent we never meet; always resenting the younger star he helped make only to watch him move on out in front; always insisting, out of pride, that he won't hawk records after a concert; that he won't write songs for Tommy Sweet, the new star he resents; that he won't open for Sweet in concert at Phoenix; that he won't this or he won't that, only to give in, without questioning, without asking, without admitting that he has given in. He is at the same time childish and grandiose, naive and worldly, sensitive and cavalier, foolish and, from time to time, wise.
Great comic interludes punctuate this novel. In these, in his selection of detail and his sparing and precise use of flashbacks, it becomes apparent that Cobb's skills have been carefully honed.
Cobb has put Bad Blake's time warp somewhere at age 29 or 30, has filled it with the wife who bore Blake's only son (with whom an embarrassingly wrong reunion is made in these pages); with the Silver Eagle van in which Bad Blake and Bad's Boys toured the nation in the early 1960s; with the Baptist church and the hymns the family sang, and the people who came through Blake's life and left him when it became apparent that however much he might want to be with them he was willing to trade everything for a double J.D., beer back.
DANIEL VILMURE uncorks it all in this high-intensity story of two Gulf Coast boys' 24-hour excursion into the storm-swollen, muddy, diseased, bloody bowels of life. What you need to know is that the father is a drunk, the mother has moved out and is living with a man named Dewey, the older of the two half-brothers, about 16, is an alcoholic, and the other, five years his junior, is not. The novel is smeared with blood and booze and chips of bone. There is incest and suicide, arson, murder and lust, pride, and the general abuse of human beings by human beings -- in short, all the elements of modern fiction.
But don't despair. Vilmure has command of all this, and I wish I could tell you all about how these two sweet brothers, never named, tell the story of the family, in the first-person and always clearly delineated as to who is doing the talking, but in the end blending so that it really doesn't matter who is talking.
And I would like to tell you in detail of the older boy's wandering through a Roman Catholic church and undergoing accidental self-baptism by way of cleaning himself, and seeing for the first time the stations of the cross, and inventing his own story to go along with them, all 14 of them, and in the "second episode you saw the same two fellas trying to get the suffering man to stand up, he was so pitiful weak and everything. They had him leaning against some kind of healing cross, and you could tell if they could only get the poor guy up there, he might start coming around to himself."
But you ought to read this one for yourself anyway.
IF YOU LIKE Daffy Duck and Cary Grant and Max Schulman, you ought to love The Sanity Matinee, Michael Zagst's third novel, which has a bit of Laurel and Hardy here and Don Adams there but none of the hard-edged wit of A Fine Madness or even One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, books with which The Sanity Matinee is bound to be compared.
Diary of a Mad Yuppie, maybe. Insights and a handful of gaspers, situations and descriptions so deftly written as to bring a sharp laugh, a quick breath, as when our protagonist's 25-year-old wife is about to go out for a run:
"Sprayberry watched her through the front window. She pranced down the driveway, turned on the sidewalk, and disappeared from view. A panic seized him for a moment. What if Terri didn't come back? What if this was the last he would ever see of her? Would he accept it, or gradually fall apart, embittered to the world and careless in his hygiene?
" 'Only time will tell,' " he answered himself out loud."
Al Sprayberry is almost 30, a utility executive with an insurance company's Houston office, married to a former cheerleader fearful of pregnancy beyond simple precautions, saddled with a mother-in-law with an incessant smoking habit and a yapping poodle. He leads a nonproductive life in a nonproductive milieu and is hounded throughout the book by an insolent and obscene red-bearded yogurt delivery route driver who is present before, during and after the moment Sprayberry cracks, grabs a security guard's pistol during a dog and pony show for the company's New York bigwigs and goes berserk, for a day or so. He winds up in a Texas mental institution and spends a year there before he is told that if he were to escape and remain escaped successfully for two weeks he would be granted a medical discharge to clear the books and make everybody happy.
Escape, then, he does, in the company of a longtime inmate whose sole contact with reality, after a lifetime of Thorazine and shock treatments, turns out to be a viable connection with the characters in the movies shown biweekly in the institution. Hence the title.
There is a little Joseph Heller here and there, and a lot of examination of lives without self-discipline. And there is a lot of wit, and you shouldn't let anybody tell you this is too good a book to enjoy. It's just what it ought to be.
AUTHOR OF four previous novels, Joseph Monninger has created a striking portrait of powerlessness in his fifth book, Second Season, which covers a year in the life of a 42-year-old New Jersey sporting goods salesman and his family, including Louey, who is 11 and dying from leukemia and the tortures of chemotherapy.
Brennan McCalmont is the essence, plus 10 percent, of upper-middle-class America. He played quarterback in high school and at college, had one really outstanding season, married a woman who is Turnpike Exit 15's answer to Grace Kelly and who smokes a social joint from time to time in the privacy of her bathroom. They have three children, the youngest being Louey.
At 42 Brennan McCalmont realizes that time has no negative value, that his parents are gone, that he has just sold his ancestral home, his stream of life has less than half its course to run, his career is mundane and his son is dying, and there is nothing, really nothing, he can do about any of it.
In the face of this spiritual impotence, McCalmont begins to take an interest in his physical condition, as perhaps something about which he can have some control. He begins running, and before the book is finished he has regained the muscle tone he had as a young man, in his one fine season, and has begun playing with a semi-pro football team peopled by five dozen other over-the-hill jocks who get together because they like to play football and hate to think they are too old to do it.
During the course of this well-executed study of acceptance versus resignation Brennan McCalmont comes, gradually, to the realization that the universe does not center on his needs, and that while he may have no power, it might be that he is not really alone in an alien and hostile cosmos.
This is a helluva novel.
I HAVE THE strongest suspicion that John A. Williams, author of 10 other novels and a handful of nonfiction works, has hauled a lesser, older manuscript from his trunk to satisfy a publishing contract or simply to make the reading public pay for some earlier real or imagined assault on his sensitivity.
At any rate, Jacob's Ladder is a slight spy thriller set in western Africa in 1966 and starring a humorless and two-dimensional black American Army major, Jacob Henry, who had been born and lived his first 10 years in Pandemi, the fictional setting for an unlikely story about post-colonial Africa.
The plot is that Chuma Fasseke, the president of Pandemi (this nice wordplay is the lightest the book ever gets), and his coterie have built a fast-breeder nuclear power plant, and it is the American CIA's plan to destroy it and cause a meltdown and show the rest of Africa that uppity is uppity, nuclear-tipped or no. There is never a sign of where this plant came from, who financed it or whose technology is running it, and I won't tell you the ending because it is, after all, a suspense novel. But be advised that if you don't like any of the characters in this book it is not your fault, because none of them, including a visiting black American jazz singer named Iris Joplin, has been developed to the point where he or she has any texture or personality, except that everybody seems to drink scotch.
If you're counting on a literary experience, fine writing and all that to carry a weak story line, behold this line from the book:
"The silver mist was lifting now, in globs, like gossamer dumplings . . . ." Well c'mon, John Williams, do you teach that stuff at Rutgers?
Robert H. Williams is an assistant news editor of The Washington Post.