Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Magic Journey

Second of a trilogy (the first being The Milagro Beanfield War), this book starts off with a bang -- the explosion of a busload of dynamite in Chamisaville, a town in the southwestern US. In the middle of the resulting crater stands a man wearing nothing but his boots.

It's a miracle!

The Holy Chapel of the Dynamite Virgin is quickly erected, followed by a Dynamite Shrine Motor Court and the sale of "sacred wooden dynamite fetishes."

In the midst of this money-making grab is the owner of the bus, Rodey McQueen, a conman from Muleshoe, Texas. He has his eye on bigger things, possible only if the backward and impoverished community of Chicanos and Native Americans can be transformed into a cash-based economy.

One of the earliest signs of progress is the arrival of the first automobile owned by a local farmer. The vehicle is dubbed the Horse without Shit and its purchase destitutes the farmer.

Another early attraction is an embalmed whale, which results in the following incident:

A pale, taciturn youth named Ralphito Garcia walked eighteen miles into town one day, gingerly placed his palm against the whale, then left without a word, a beatific smile lighting up his bewitched features: he promptly hitchhiked to the West Coast and drowned himself in the Pacific Ocean.

This symbolic event is referenced again and again throughout the book, as a dripping Ralphito reappears numerous times with seaweed in his hair. He presages the outcome of the "Betterment of Chamisaville" scheme, which McQueen and his band of developers (the "Anglo Axis") are implementing by robbing people of their land.

Local opposition includes an exhausted lawyer, a hundred-year-old outlaw, and McQueen's own daughter, April Delaney. Vivacious and impossibly beautiful, her hunger for life leads her through many travels and numerous marriages, before she returns to Chamisaville to oppose her father's ruthless ambitions.

A Real Kitchen Sink

That's how the author describes the book in his Introduction, and he's right. It's a big rambling work, bursting with characters, full of humour and compassion and raunchy sex, but also simmering with rage, which does not become truly apparent until the gut-wrenching ending. The Magic Journey has some of the same range, expansiveness, and multitude of characters as Pynchon's V and Gravity's Rainbow, though I much preferred The Magic Journey to those.

In the Introduction the author also says that he was "politicized in the mid-1960s by feminism, the antiwar movement, environmental activism, the fight for civil rights." All of these elements are present in the book. He adds, "Call this a 'regional' novel and I'll kill you."

Here's a typical passage, McQueen reflecting on his early years:

[He was] a skinny hobo tacker wild as a corncrib rat riding boxcars, hunting cigarette butts in gutters, pitching hay on west Texas prairieland until his back was almost broken, curled up under tattered blankets in snow-sprinkled winter arroyos half starving to death, grappling big-breasted farm girls ugly as homemade soap in horse-shit-smelling three-room shotgun shacks, and getting drunk in disaster alleys with other tow-headed buck-toothed big-eared scrawny redneck good 'ol boys on Saturday nights in small cowboy towns with names like Lampasas, Tulip, Ropesville, Tokio, Turkey, Matador, Rankin, and Iraan.

McQueen had strung barbed wire, milked cows, played $6.98 Sears Roebuck guitars, shot horses for meat (and rustled them, too), hunted rattlesnakes in annual roundups, stolen cars, spent a year in jail and another six months in the workhouse and on a road gang, managed a travelling carnival, and ridden broncos and bulls bareback in a hundred rodeos. He had failed in a dozen occupations before arriving in Chamisaville: logger, cowboy, trainman, wetback runner and farm contractor, oil rigger, all-around conman, poacher, Bible salesman, semipro football player, whatever had come his way.