A country's various cultures, like its dances and accents, have uniquely identifying rhythms, patterns of pace and concision that have long worked themselves past habit to become a society's very form. So it is entirely fitting that Donald McCaig has given his narrative of the small and fiercely insulated community of a mining company town the name of a dance -- "The Butte Polka" -- and he reminds us, early and often, that his place and his theme song share a hard, driving urgency.
At several points in the novel, the narrator, a young miner named Jimmy Mullholland, pauses to compare events and melodies that rise up along the way to "The Butte Polka," and every so often a character gets up from a table or steps down from a bar stool and walks to a juke box to play the song. So it exists in the story as both woven symbol and specific detail, and that represents the novel's central problem. For while McCraig, a native of Butte, clearly knows, and in many places marvelously conveys, the steps and ceremonies of a small, self-scrutinizing world -- the rhythms of the dance itself -- he has imposed upon it a specific lyric, a particular tone, that leaves us alternately bemused, frustrated and finally more than willing to sit this polka out.
It is the bleak, frozen winter of 1946 and Butte, Mont., is wondering and worrying about the possibility of a miner's strike, an occurrence almost everyone on both sides believes unwise. Only a few shrill voices on the radical edge of outrage urge a walkout. When the loudest and most orchestrative of them, the narrator's brother-in-law Joel Kangas, fails to come home from his graveyard shift as a furnace inspector in the mines, suspicion grows to conviction that Kangas has been killed by management thugs; indeed, that he has been fed to the hughe furnace he watched for wages.
So the novel progresses, with all the slow, methodical certainty of five weeks in Butte, on a search of confirmation. We are led through the bars and over the snow-crusted back streets of the town, taking detours through mining history, local lore and occasional attempts at . . . what? Comic relief? Deepening texture (in the form of pie recipes and bar-bouncer's commandments)? And all of it described for us in the clipped, cynical voice of Jimmy Mullholland, who dreams of engineering school and eventual escape to a sunlit world and who sounds like nothing so much as a parody of the fictional detective, those Marlowes and Archers of the world, whose weary cynicism believes no explanation, trusts no affection, and who inevitably find, as their case stories unravel, ample evidence for all their rue.
"The Deputy called me back," Jimmy Mullholland tells us, "He had a frown. 'Sit down,' he said. He shuffled the missing persons report . It was only two pages so the shuffle didn't mean much."
And: "He gave me the old eyeball-to-eyeball. I gave it right back to him."
And: "I figured he'd tell me once he stopped circling around it, and I said as much. He barked a laugh at me. I guess my impudence pleased him. My neck ached."
And on and on. What are we to make of this? Are we to understand that the grimness and pressures of places like Butte, real or fictional, age us prematurely, wizen us cynically, so that a 24-year-old speaks to us in the lexicon of a life of disillusion? If so, McCaig gives Mullholland no abiding pain, no unrequited revenge. He has a tough, loving relationship with his father. He wins with absolute ease the body of and a kind of loyalty from the obligatory young-woman sidekick. In short, he has no reason to speak in Lew Archer's lean, wounded epigrams.
I would not pay such attention to McCaig's voice, even if it does sound like gimmickry, if it were not so insistent. For in the absence of a plot that logically (or illogically) matters, of characters with credibility or dimension, it is all we are left to notice -- a laboriously wrought, highly mannered style that leaves no choice (beyond the possibility that its intenstion is comic) but to become increasingly irritated by its imitative ring.
If McCaig had worked more closely with what he writes and knows so well -- the tribal rituals, the powerful inanities, of a miniature culture -- he might have nurtured a fine novel. (His long carefully observed description of a small-town Catholic wake, complete with keeners in top form and with precise assignments, is a splendid scene of practiced grief. Equally good is his character of the local deputy, a man at perfect unease with the constant company of his early, faded promise.) Instead, he has written a novel defined by criteria it fails to meet. It's not broad enough for parody. Not circuitously plotted enough for detective fiction; not morally harsh enough to stand as a piece of proletarian advocacy (indeed, the "company," compared to those in history, seems downright benign); not distinctive enough in its language to stand as a work of style. "The Butte Polka" calls to mind the opinions of those tough, teen-aged critics who used to star, in the late '50s, on American Bandstand. When asked their judgements of a newly recorded tune, they often replied, "the words were okay, but I couldn't dance to it."