Dan Jenkins has turned his professional Texan's eye to a story that many will find familiar, perhaps too much so. Juanita Hutchins, a perpetual-motion wag who works the bar at Herb's Cafe in Fort Worth, writes western swing songs and dreams of the C&W big time. After a number of silly efforts (including "Fritos Never Let Me Down") he dashes off a swing hymn to Texas called, ironically, "Baja Oklahoma." The fate of the song and its author occupy (sort of) the rest of the novel.
The plot is no more than a paper donkey upon which Jenkins pins a thousand tales. "Baja Oklahoma" is really about his crazy and sentimental vision of Texas, a state of dazzling energy and multiplicity where alecks are smarter, drunks drunker, jokes raunchier and women -- well, they do anything, and like it. To evoke this mythical state, the novel spends time inventing its population, remembering its dead, spouting the lore of TCU and Fort Worth. Jenkins' impulse is clear: Like Juanita, who affirms her love for Texas even though her dreams would take her away from it, Jenkins pledges his Longhorn allegiance from his Big Apple home.
Formally, the book is a puddle. Not surprising, for Jenkins is more concerned with turning out thousands of jokes, at least one a paragraph, and the paragraphs are short. However, Jenkins can be amusing, as he proved in "Semi-Tough" and "Dead Solid Perfect." He has a good ear for comic dialogue, and a sharp eye for ludicrous detail.
Although the book contains dozens of funny things, most cannot be quoted; Jenkins' humor is scabrous. The novel's best moments unite comedy and characterization, as with the introduction of Tommy Earl Bruner: "He had been a football immortal at Paschal High and TCU. Although he was now 35 and those days were well behind him, he still thought of himself as a local celebrity. This gave him the right to be drunk in public."
Unfortunately, thousands of jokes fall flat. His usual satiric targets (punk rock, cocaine sniffing, John Birchies) have already collapsed of their own weight. The patterns of humor grow redundant. If a character asks something obvious, he is answered, "Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back?" or variations thereof. As you might infer, insulting humor abounds. And Jenkins wants to have it both ways: We are to laugh at the sexist and racist jokes he invents for his characters, but understand, too, that he would never make them.
Very quickly, the jokes grow exhausting in their crudeness. After a few dozen witty sorties into topics like mooning, body odor, oral sex and breaking wind, I was inoculated for good against the desire to visit Jenkins' version of Texas.
"Baja Oklahoma" is fiction, after all -- not a nightclub act. Eventually colorful speech must make way for narrative -- but this never happens. The plot stands still for hundreds of pages at a time, with no compensating interest in characterization. Most of the characters are mayflies: They are born, have a joke made about them, and die.
I suspect Jenkins is after something deeper and wiser. Sweetness, romance and gentle comedy try to enter the novel at the end of the second chapter, when Juanita is asked, "Do you ever not make jokes?" Forty-one pages of wisecracks make us wonder, too, and we are told that "she gave that question some thought as she drove home." Here Jenkins seems to perceive the sadness of a world smothered with one-liners. But the gags return -- in the first sentence of the next chapter.
Juanita and her creator are trapped in an inhuman world where true feelings cannot be expressed because they take two lines and aren't funny. If we do not love Juanita or Texas as much as Jenkins wants us to, this is because his endless jokes finally obscure what he, and we, most care about. For luminous comedy that is truly many-sided you must go elsewhere -- to writers like Charles Portis or Grace Paley.
"Baja Oklahoma" is disappointing as fiction, but if you are in the mood for gags, nothing but gags, lots of them, laughs poured out by the barrel, Dan Jenkins has written a novel for you.