In one of the moments of truth that are scattered lavishly through "The Nirvanan Blues," anti-hero Joe Miniver is sitting in a local restaurant, the Prince of Whales, meditating on the literary life of Chamisaville, the mythical New Mexico town where he lives, strives and suffers incredible adversities. There were, Miniver imagined, "4,837 people in this town . . . who were writing novels. Norman Mailer never sid it, but he might have had he visited the place: 'Just give me 10 minutes in the Prince of Whales Cafe, and I could write a 2,000-page novel about Chamisaville.'"
John Nichols has not quite reached the 2,000-page mark yet, but he is respectably close in this third novel about Chamisa County, which is surely one of the richest literary turfs since Yoknapatawpha, if not quite so deep in its psychological labyrinths or so brilliantly tortured in the literary style it evokes.This may be the end of the story, but don't count on it. Nichols hints that he has finished with the subject in an author's note. Should the three Chamisa County novels survive, he says, "I suppose future interested persons might refer to these books as his New Mexico trilogy,' even though the name of New Mexico never appears in any of the texts."
That makes it sound final, but Nichols himself admits that he controls his mateial only fitfully: "My stories often sprint away from their original intentions like delinquent children, gallumph blindly into all sorts of unforeseen pitfalls, and finally, with luck, stagger to the finish line as total strangers to the original schemes that launched them." That seems to have happened in substantial parts of "The Nirvana Blues," right up to the end where Joe Miniver, mercifully dead at last, hijacks the angel who has come to get him and sets off for Cuba. (Perhaps it is not fair to reveal the plot like this, but as a whole it truly defies revelation.)
At any rate, in discussing his own work, Nichols is not always as reliable as he is readable. For example, despite his protestation, the name of New Mexico appears on page 178 of "The Nirvana Blues." On that page, Alamogordo, N.M., is identified as a place where a character from Chamisaville has gone to have his aura adjusted.
Like its two predecessors, "The Milagro Beanfield War" and "The Magic Journey," "The Nirvana Blues" has an epic scope, a widescreen background, a large and varied cast of charming eccentrics and truly rotten villains. But this novel is, chronologically, a very condensed epic. While "The Magic Journey" covers four decades of rapid, inexorable change in the life of a whole community, "The Nirvana Blues" focuses on a few climactic days in the life of Joe Miniver. At the beginning of the trilogy, New Mexico was still a relatively unspoiled land, basically the possession of Indians and Mexicans who lived off the land. It was ripe for spoiling, and the story of that spoiling is a major concern of the trilogy. "The Nirvana Blues" opens with a brief, lyrical-historic recapitulation of what has happened so far and goes on to the final act.
Chamisaville has been transformed into Middle America, a land of bowling alleys and pizza parlos, inhabited by affluent nouveau-hippie types who soak up sunshine, couple indiscriminately, perpetuate the life styles of the late '60s and '70s that have become obsolete in most civilized areas and generally try to transform their corner of New Mexico into a parody of California. Eastern religions flourish, as does astrology. The dominant local religion is the Hanuman sect, whose credo involves the worship of a monkey god. In counterpoint to the hippies are the exploiters -- gangsters and land developers who control the fiscal life of the town. Distinctions blur; some of the exploiters could pass for hippies.
Only one small spot of unspoiled (that is, undeveloped) land remains in the town: the 1.7-acre farm of Eloy Irribaren, a crippled octogenarian farmer who is the last remaining representative of the people who used to live in Chamisaville. As Eloy obviously nears the end of his days, and as his debts accumulate, the human vultures circle over his land. The developers want it for their own nefarious uses -- at best, perhaps, "a Born-Again Laundromat, where Jesus freaks and other spiritual groupies could wash their clothes with vegetarian or herbal soaps, one-hundred-percent pure well water . . . and completely biodergradable bleaches and other laundering agents." The Hanumans want it for a shrine.
Joe Miniver, perhaps the only totally straight human being in the novel as it opens, wants it to grow things on -- a ridiculous aspiration in view of what has been happening to property values in the area. He lacks the money to buy it, but hopes to get it through a quick excursion into the cocaine trade and later into bank robbery, both of which prove disastrous. Under the strain of such futile efforts, he changes his formerly cozy, family-oriented life and embarks on an orgiastic odyssey that puts him into the mainstream of the madness that has taken over Chamisaville.
The plot's elaborations, pitfalls, reversals and blind alleys are baroque in their proliferation, particularly when Nichols begins to mix wild fantasy into his largely realistic narrative. But the plot is not a reason for anyone to read "The Nirvana Blues"; its value lies in the author's often virtuoso style, the profusion of strange but believable characters, the skill with which small incidents are developed and the curious blend of humor and pathos, which are often found fighting for supremacy in a single phrase. Hopelessly flawed, perhaps, in its overall structure, the book is redeemed by the flaws themselves -- the intrusive, irrelevant details that keep jostling the author away from the main line of his narrative into fascinating byways. I can imagine that some readers will hate it cordially, but not those who share its exuberant love of life in all its kinky, inexplicable variety.