"This is WMFT, your music, news and sports station in Nashville, Tennessee, the country-music capital of the world, 1240 on your dial . . . You in the mood for the finest female vocalist in the nation? Then, honey, who you're in the mood for is Loretta Lynn, singing number three on the chart . . . on the Big Bob Travis Night Owl Show. Where else?"
So opens "On the Big Wind," a book that announces itself as "Being Seven Comic Episodes in the Fitful Rise of Big Bob Travis From Disc Jockey in an Eastern Kentucky Mountain Town to Network-Television News Reporter." One already senses in this lengthy qualifying subtitle an attempt to justify what is to follow. Which is seven episodes of varying technique, rather fitfully written, by turns sloppy, flat or brilliant, each of which has something more or less to do with Big Bob Travis.
Yet we learn very little about Big Bob: we see him almost entirely as his public sees him (the first and last episodes are notable exceptions), through all sorts of hype and braodcast jargon -- and a good deal more of the news than we want. Old news, at that, "Canton, Ohio," Big Bob reports in Episode 3, "President Nixon mixed with football heroes during enshrinement cermonies at the Professional Football Hall of Fame yesterday. At the airport, he told a welcoming crowd that he was sure the earth 'looks peaceful' to the Apollo 15 astronauts who landed on the moon moments earlier. Meanwhile, reactions vary to Nixon's controversial plans for visiting China."
What Madden wants to do is establish a sense of the time and place, to underscore the ephemeral nature of news stories, facts, as opposed to legend, fiction. But he goes on too long with the facts. He is much more effective when he alludes to events that place Big Bob in time. "In the back of Ted Kennedy's black Oldsmobile," he writes in Episode 2, "tidewater rising in the rapid current, Mary Jo gasps in an air bubble." This is the kind of stunning prose that Madden is capable of. We see little enough of it in "On the Big Wind."
In this book, he is too anxious for us to come to conclusions, rather than for us to feel. Big Bob is not so much a fully realized character as he is a mouthpiece, a vehicle for the exploration of Madden's central theme, which is the death and resurrection of the Story, and of storytelling, in our daily lives. In one episode, Big Bob saves himself from harm by mesmerizing a group of motorcycle thugs with a story; in another, he makes a legend out of a rape of an Indian boy -- by emphasizing the mythic elements of the story; in still another, he watches a group of old men trade stories about a local fugitive and folk hero, and realizes that when these old men die ("Blind Homers," Madden calls them), "the habit of nonutilitarian speech will vanish from the earth." The news, he seems to say, the media, will go on. I think this is all very fine -- it's even admirable -- as themes go. But if fiction could stand on theme alone it would be no more than disguised essay.
The ironic and unfortunate thing here is that "On the Big Wind" is purported (by the publisher, at least) to be a novel. It is not a novel. It is an uneven collection of stories. There are pieces here that would be quite satisfying if they were not asked to hold in balance, with no more than an allusion or a new setting, everything before and after them. If one reads the book as a collection of stories, the weaker episodes seem not quite so damaging, and the stronger ones, excluding the effort to tie them to each other as chapters, are enhanced. As a novel, "On the Big Wind" is top-heavy with theme, and the fact that an attempt is made to tie it all together only intensifies one's sense of the lack of those things which, inevitably if not by edict, make a novel a novel and not something else. The result is a disappointing book from a writer whose work is important enough for us to feel that disappointment.