In a mood that probably represented middle ground between self-pity and self-criticism, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that he had become an authority on failure. Barry Gifford offers hints that his doomed hero also became an authority on failure, but only after his options ran out. Forty-year-old Franz Hall had a child's-eye view, to be sure. But there is no sign that he had the habit of introspection, wrestled with his drinking problem or even held himself accountable for his misadventures until his drunken driving killed his son and destroyed his marriage. With so much ruin behind him he is prepared, so to speak, for the last chapter of his life.
That chapter is the starting point of poet and novelist Gifford's new book, "Port Tropique." Romantic fiction has warned us, at least since Conrad's early Malay novels, that where the pavement ends, solitary expatriated white men begin to go to pieces. Port Tropique, a city and a province in a banana republic periodically awakened from its apathy by revolution, has its pavements, but the atmosphere is Conradian, and even though he becomes used to it, Franz decides to return to the States as soon as he can pick up a decent (more accurately, indecent) nest egg. He is abetted in this ambition by two men whose appearance and mannerisms instruct Franz, a moviegoer, that nature intended them to play heavies. Franz privately labels these superiors -- for he becomes their agent -- the bear and the snake.
Renaldo, the snake, directs smuggling operations which roll without a hitch until revolution sends armies fanning across the country. Saddled with stolen currency that can't be routed through the familiar channels, Franz suddenly faces perplexing options. Whether he steals this half-million in loot or lets it get away from him, he will have to go into permanent and probably short-lived hiding. Given the powers of a judge -- in effect will be -- neither the bear nor the snake would tolerate plea bargaining.
Franz himself isn't above violence. (He kills a burglar who would make off with his half-million.) Nor, as the pressures increase, is he above mockery or humor. Reporters from The Washington Post and Newsweek who descend on Port Tropique to cover the revolution ask him what he is doing in this back-of-nowhere capital and are told he is writing a biography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, especially the mythical penny-pinching Franklin who emerges from "Poor Richard's Almanack," is antithetical to everything Franz believes in.
To show how Franz arrived at his valvues, Gifford uses flashbacks that are jottings from a life rather than chronological biography. Franz was born in a well-to-do New Orlean's family. The early death of his father and the remarriage of his mother introduced the boy to frustrations that he escaped by fantasizing. He read, he became a passionate moviegoer, and he found role models in macho heros who drank heavily, womanized, tossed money to the winds and preferred a gallant end to the dragging monotony of a long life for long life's sake. Dying in a hospital, as his father had done, struck home as the ultimate obscenity. Perhaps Franz's admiration for Harry Morgan, the smuggler of Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not," explains why he suppressed his misgivings and teamed up with gangsters like the bear and the snake.
Life is enhanced for Franz when he sees it in terms of a plagiarism: a reflection of a poem, novel or movie. A big orange moon reminds him of lines from Li Po, an eighth-century poet. He repeatedly notes that people on the street and in bars are clones of his favorite movie actors; he talks knowledgeably of "advanced" writers like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. It is clear that he is an artist manque.
What seems to be wanting is a discipline and a sense of purpose that would enable Franz to turn his gift for fantasizing into a literary talent. Whether his estheticism and his macho ideals could have worked together successfully is arguable. But Gifford himself likes sports and has furnished proof again and again -- most impressively in a translation he co-authored of the poetry of Francis James -- that he is also in the camp of the esthetes. If nothing works for Franz and the conflicting sides of him never consent to peace, the answer may lie in his alcoholism.
In "Jack's Book," an "oral biography" of Jack Kerouac, Gifford and his co-author depicted not only a life but the social changes that colored it. A poet's nuances prose runs through "Port Tropique," and the atmosphere of individual scenes is stippled in without the cumbersomeness of old-fashioned scene painting. That is to say, "Port Tropique" escapes the prosiness and clumsiness of the typical work of fiction.
Yet Gifford has obviously set out to write a spellbinding story in which social history plays a role. Toward this end he somtimes introduces episodes that seemed tacked on. Two of these episodes are hauled forth, word for word, from his book of short stories and skethces, "My Mother's People." Nevertheless, "Port Tropique" is an important step forward in the career of a young writer who already has a backlog of 20 books.