"Don't Mind Dying: A Novel of Country Lust and Urban Decay" is Steve Chapple's second book. On the evidence of the skeleton of the plot, I expected to dislike it. Ex-miner-cowboy Codger Bill Lewis, 77, is hitchhiking from Montana to San Francisco. Along the way he's rescured from vengeful policemen by vacationing Brooklynite Betty Sue Finkelstein, 26. They travel the remainder of the distance together, adventuring raucously and falling in love. From a feminist perspective this premise sounded exploitative and chosen for its freak appeal. Happily, Chapple's novel didn't bear out my suspicions.
What Steve Chapple has created is a political fantasy: multiracial, multicreed, multigenerational, sexually egalitarian if not explicitly feminist. mSpliced between Codger Bill and Betty Sue's travelogue (he talks old-line socialism throughout the journey) is the urban strand in the plot's braid. San Francisco's municipal employes are gearing up for a strike; they're eventually represented by Lester and Makiba Curtis, garbage collector and vocational nurse respectively, who are both black. During this time a wildcat strike occurs at a General Motors plant outside the city, led by assemblyline worker Danny O'Neil, Codger Bill and Betty Sue, naturally, get involved. w
Steve Chapple draws upon the techniques of 19th-century American realists such as Mark Twain for his casual narrative: much use of the vernacular and colloquialisms, sly, understated humor, outrageous metaphor, and a fondness for pulling the reader's leg.
He's clearly interested in defining a mental geography of the western United States, and his etchings of California, Nevada, Wyoming, and Montana -- vast, spare, derelict -- constitute many of the novel's best passages. Chapple also has a solid background in and love for American history (its labor aspects in particular). Judging from the frequency with which it crops up in his writing, the axiom "give credit where credit is due" is one of Chapple's favorites. "Don't Mind Dying" neatly summarizes the author's populist revisionism: Codger Bill is described as " a whobble preacher tapping and pounding on the gates of an historical heaven guarded primly and myopically by Samuel Eliot Morison and Arthur Schlesinger."
While the novel is generally successful, Codger Bill is a bit too garrulous and irrepressible, and the scenes concerning the Curtises and O'Neil are disappointingly brief. An unneeded confrontation between Codger Bill's feisty common-law wife, Sarah Ma Lewis, and Betty Sue, is stiff and clumsy. Chapple also devised a bitter caricature of a California governor (called Heavy Heavy Jerry Green); true to stereotype he's insincere, two-faced, an ex-Jusuit who mouths Zen platitudes. Whether or not this is good politics, it's a poor fictional treatment: Chapple explores few ambiguities of Green's personality.
Chapple has shown us that the political is personal, but he's left the converse of that slogan untouched. Linguistically and structurally conventional, he believes exclusively in collective action as the route to social change (as compared with the aesthetic radicalism posited by someone like rock-culture prose experimentalist Richard Meltzer). His first book, co-authored by Reebee Garofalo, was "Rock 'n' Roll is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry," an earnestly Marxist work.
Steve Chapple is quite talented, though. In the future I hope he polishes his literary skills and relies less upon the flat voice of the union organizer. But -- to give credit where credit is due -- I'll be looking forward to his next book.