On the surface, these two novels appear related to each other. One is about a small Montana community and its fight to prevent strip mining from tearing it to shreds; the other is about the near future in Phoenix, Ariz., after society's greed has raped the land and the people, then collapsed on itself, leaving the survivors to live in the wreckage. They are two points on the same line, but they aren't very much alike. Although both are set in the West, the desert of southern Arizona is a far cry from the prairie of eastern Montana. And Edward Abbey's short, fast-paced adventure story is a far cry from James Grady's sprawling novel of the land and the numberless characters who live on it.
Abbey is a good action writer, and the extended chase near the end is the best part of "Good News." It has grit, and it moves. The book is a melodrama of simple characters fighting it out under a hot, blazing sun. The desert country around Phoenix is clearly, starkly realized from the very first scene, but the sun casts black shadows. The people who move in that landscape are sketched in black and white; even when the two are mixed in the same character, they don't blend to a subtler gray. Both plot and characters are cliches, from the old man and his Indian sidekick riding in town in search of the old man's son to the neo-Nazi leader who rules Phoenix with his little army and dreams of reunifying the country under an iron fist. Characters from a Western have stepped into the pages of a Nazi torture romance, with a band of revolutionary students led by their anarchist professor as the guerrilla underground. It's a silly story, no matter how fast it moves.
Although there isn't much depth to the stage set of broken-down Phoenix, there is a fascination in walking through it with the characters and seeing the abandoned motels, wind-swept department stores and rusting cars. It gives perspective on our artifacts and their impermanence. And if Phoenix after the collapse seems two-dimensional, part of Abbey's point is that Phoenix -- and all the other Western cities grafted into the land with no roots of their own -- is an unnatural growth that cannot survive.
The hero of James Grady's "Catch the Wind" is a three-dimensional character. Curt Ross, a rancher and a natural leader, unites the people of the Montana valley where he lives to fight the coal company with its plans to strip mine their land. He is more complicated than his image as a cowboy hero, and the story follows his fate as much as that of the land. Lee Driscoll, the woman who comes out from back East to help the community organize against the mining, is the heroine, and she too has complexity. Her roots are revealed in memory or flashback; his are in the soil of the novel and its struggle.
There are a wealth of other characters, many of them stereotypes. By the beginning of Chapter 7, Grady is still introducing new characters. But even the sketchiest minor characters are nicely rendered. Each belongs in the story. Whenever Grady shifts his focus and appears to be digressing, he weaves another strand into the overall tapestry.
The novel covers a year in the lives of ranchers and townsfolk, company men and rural characters: the people who live in the valley and those who come to rip it up. The first part slowly establishes the situation and the characters and outlines the machinations of the coal company; the second part leaves much of that behind as the two main characters become more deeply involved with each other. Therein lies the disappointment of the book: It shows the plight of one small community, but in the end nothing is resolved. The doom that has hung over the valley since the beginning seems more certain; lives have been changed, broken, enriched and lost in the process; but the novel ends abruptly and too soon. The fight against the strip mining which dominates the first half becomes background in the second, a motivation for people's actions but not really part of the action itself. When at the very end it returns to the foreground to shatter everyone's dreams, it seems an intrusion.
"Catch the Wind" is ultimately disappointing because its complexity doesn't run deep enough. Like "Good News," its plot is predictable and its characters tend towards stereotype; but at least its stereotypes come alive.