Winter 1993, Volume 10.1

Book Reviews

 Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston
. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992, 171 pp., $19.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Sally Bishop Shigley, Department of English, Weber State University

The title of Pam Houston's short story collection sounds like the chorus of a top-forty country song, yet beneath its covers lie stories that problematize the easy generalities and simple oppositions at the heart of those songs. Set primarily in the wilds of Alaska and the mountains of the West, these stories and the women who tell them explore the pain and confusion and change that characterize romantic relationships between men and women. Alternatively bitter and joyous, sardonic and wistful, these are stories of women balancing joy and anxiety: Houston counterpoints scenes of making love under a Christmas tree with the reality of loving a man who cheats. Similarly, the "high" that one woman experiences while winter-camping in the Rockies is mediated by the problems and difficulties that wait in the valley below. One of the most refreshing things about Houston's stories is that she does not attempt to provide absolute solutions to the problems she describes. Instead, she looks for motives, examining them with a direct, clean prose style and an honestly and humor, a stance that is realistic and ironic and compassionate all at the same time.

Although all of the stories deal with the West, some take place in the wilderness while others are set in urban areas such as Salt Lake City. The wilderness stories are without a doubt the most successful. The cover jacket design, from a painting of a dark horizon against a Taos sunset, provides the perfect introduction to the images of liminality and change that characterize these "wilderness" stories–those about rafting and hunting and ranching. "How to Talk to a Hunter," the opening story, may be familiar to many readers as it was anthologized in the Best American Short Stories: 1990. Delivered in clipped, declarative sentences in the second person, this powerful story resonates with tension; the wry, ironic "voice of experience" on what not to do in relationships struggles to control her longing and frustration as her "instructions" bring back painful memories. Like the other narrators of the wilderness stories, this woman is willing to indict her own foolish choices in the same breath that she accuses her cheating lover. This balance between blame and acceptance, suffering and strength, serves as the unifying theme of the collection.

In "Selway," a smart, energetic, thirtyish veteran of sixteen marriage proposals (and as many river trips) searches for the seemingly impossible balance of "peace without boredom" (41) with her wild, commitment-phobic lover Jack, while in the title story, a woman with a college education and a "made-for-TV-movie mentality" (115) tries to distinguish between the real cowboys of her dreams and the "capitalists with a Texas accent who own a horse" (109). Armed with experience and humor and hunting knives, these women try to find answers and compromises among the myths and symbols and outright lies that surround the West and cowboys, men and women, love and need. Filled with humor, insight, and an uncanny ability to find words for the frustration and uneasiness that exists between men and women, the wilderness stories are the most successful and satisfying in the collection.

Although lacking the rugged, often symbolically evocative backdrop against which the wilderness stories unfold, the "urban" stories of the collection tell of the unspoken and unspeakable things that separate men and women even after they have come down out of the wilds. In these stories, language is the locus of the "balancing act" that the characters strive to perfect. "What Shock Heard" tells of the "gap" between Raye and Zeke, two ranch dwellers who try to balance "communication" and "the things there aren't any words for" (77). "Sometimes You Talk About Idaho" follows a woman writer from the West to New York and back in search of both a word to express the opposite of "lonely" (151) and a man who combines the qualities of her "good father" and the desirability of a soap-opera star.

Coming to terms with desire is the central problem in "Jackson Is Only One of My Dogs" and "Highwater" as well. It is handled somewhat less expertly in these stories, however, as the oppositions between good dog/bad dog in "Jackson" and romantic musician/overly rational capitalist in "Highwater" make the endings of these stories predictable. "Symphony," an ultra-short story, however, is brilliant in its impressionistic juxtaposition of men a woman has loved in very different ways. Within four pages, Houston paints lush images both of these men and of the dreams of her protagonist as she explores the difference between what "certain kinds" of women "should" do and what their hearts tell them is the healthy and satisfying thing to do. Houston's women are smart and capable and talented, but they are all poised at emotional thresholds: where men are concerned, they struggle to balance what is "supposed" to happen–the storybook endings of John Wayne westerns–with what they really want. They struggle to write their own stories instead of living within somebody else's.

Houston's exploration of this process of bonding and balancing is well worth reading. Her stories are empathetic to her characters' dilemmas without being sentimental, and she combines wit and wisdom while adroitly avoiding the biting, sarcastic edge that can so easily overpower an "ironic" tone. Houston's voice is rich with experience but "breathless and frightened by the frailty of miracles, and full of the fact of our lives" ("Highwater" 59).

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 Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez by Scott Slovic
. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1992, 203 pp., $17.95 (paper).

Reviewed by James R. Aubrey, Department of English, Metropolitan State College of Denver

Intended or not, the title Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing has several meanings. For a critic, the idea of seeking awareness is a topic that can be traced "in" written works about nature. For an author, the process of writing about nature is a way of thinking "in" which he or she seeks self-awareness. For readers, the seeking involves their own quests for awareness as they experience nature "in" the verbal texts. All three meanings seem implicit in Slovic's description of the writers he is studying as "chanticleers in the Thoreauvian tradition." In his epilogue, Slovic distances himself from the advocacy usually associated with "ecocriticism," but it is clear he has written this book with a hope similar to Thoreau's, of describing his topic in a way that will awaken his readers to something like his own, highly-aware relationship with his environment.

With the phrase "Thoreauvian tradition," Slovic does not mean the succession of nature writers influenced by Thoreau, a tradition that would include figures such as Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Instead, Slovic examines–thoughtfully and insightfully–different ways in which Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Barry Lopez use writing as a way to understand the outside world, to represent their perceptions, and to heighten awareness in themselves and in their readers.

The discussion of Thoreau focuses almost exclusively on his journal, composed between 1837 and 1861, where Slovic argues that what began as a workbook intended by Thoreau for later revision, soon became an end in itself. In his daily entries, Thoreau could experiment with different perspectives in a consciously unsystematic way, trying to represent with words what he called "'sauntering,'" his ideal mixture of active movement through nature with passive reception of sensory impressions, a method that gave Thoreau opportunities to examine his own psychological boundaries and to be more aware of how to negotiate between the scientific and the rhapsodic modes of perceiving nature. Slovic argues that Thoreau's "journalizing" became for him a way of living intensely, not some pose of artlessness but a "life act."

The other four writers in Slovic's study are all writing in the cultural wake of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the ecological movement. Still, they differ, and it is a pleasure to follow Slovic as he examines their uses of perception and teases out their attitudes. In his chapter on Annie Dillard, the focus is on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood. Slovic sees Dillard as primarily interested in the processes of her own consciousness, more like a psychologist exploring varieties of mental experience than an advocate of greater mystical awareness in nature. Whereas Dillard uses metaphors and grotesque images to avoid domesticating the natural world, Edward Abbey startles his readers out of customary perceptual modes with aesthetic horseplay. Slovic argues that Abbey's lush descriptions in Desert Solitaire and the extravagant dialogue and puns of The Monkey Wrench Gang alert readers to the wilderness in themselves and upend their conventional assumptions that hide the otherness of the world. Wendell Berry advocates patient watchfulness to develop a sense of belonging in nature, usually associated with a landscape that is familiar such as "the camp" in The Long-Legged House. Slovic points out how different Berry is from Dillard and Abbey who try to defamiliarize nature rather than emphasize human continuities with it. Barry Lopez, in Arctic Dreams, particularizes a strange landscape to show readers how desires affect the imagination. Lopez's exploration of the immediate and the abstract is an attempt to achieve some "contact with otherness," but Slovic reinforces the understanding that nature is ultimately unknowable by choosing as an epigraph for the Lopez chapter an existentialist pronouncement on "the impassable gulf which exists between man and the world."

Slovic likes to contrast the five writers with one another as his discussion unfolds. For example, the "at-homeness in nature" that Berry is said to be seeking, Slovic notes, is the very thing Abbey and Dillard "hint at, but promptly, in order to prevent dullness and complacency, dispel." The occasional analogies Slovic draws with other writers are also helpful. He reveals some strong affinities between Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and Lopez's Arctic Dreams, and Slovic's at first seemingly far-fetched comparison between the The Monkey Wrench Gang and Lolita turns out to be illuminating.

Slovic's rhetorical framework is philosophical. Epistemologists and phenomenologists are cited, with occasional references to psychology and linguistics, but Slovic typically draws on such theoreticians to clarify local points or to enrich a reading, rather than to build some global theory of mind.

The five writers share a fascination with the workings of their own minds, making their gathering appropriate as more than just four contemporary authors hitched to a star of American literature. But there is something disquieting about the exclusively American focus in a book whose issues have such an important global dimension. England's John Fowles writes profoundly about nature and self-awareness in The Tree, and writers from non-Western cultures must have other valuable ways of writing and thinking about nature. Discovering what those ways are would be a large undertaking, and Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing is a fine beginning for that project. It is one of the strengths of Slovic's book that, having read it, I now want to know more.

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 First a Long Hesitation: Poems by Eve Shelnutt
. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie.   Mellon University Press, 1992, 93 pp., $9.95 (paper).

Reviewed by S. S. Moorty, Department of Language & Literature, Southern Utah University, Cedar City

I detect in Eve Shelnutt's 58 poems gathered in First a Long Hesitation–some of the poems have appeared in several journals like Prairie Schooner, Tar River Poetry, North American Review, Nimrod–a certain romantic strain; a confessional tone; perhaps a metaphysical concern with death (the word 'death' appears at least sixteen times in some form or the other) and time; a painful understanding of human relationships and anxieties; a melancholic realization of life's long hesitations. The poet's emphasis behind these poems–poems that are evocative and muted; poems that are lyrical and languid; poems that are magnificently moving; poems that are soberly sad; poems that are erotic without being vulgar–is her intense need to face, to understand, and to learn the troubling vicissitudes of life–love, death, separation, and time. Quite appropriately, in the epigraph to the collection, Shelnutt quotes Zenophanes of Colophon (sixth century B. C.): "Semblance is wrought over all things." For example, 'waiting,' to Shelnutt, "is a kind of birth,/the creature writhing/from its ill-fitting sheath." ("Waiting")

Shelnutt's dexterity and her ability to limn the tensions between places and feelings, reality and illusion, language and voices, are strikingly manifested in the concluding poem of the collection, "At the Edge of Dawn," which reminds me of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"; unlike Arnold's poem that sadly testifies to the sense of alienation on cosmic, social, and personal levels, the joyless speaker in Shelnutt's poem recognizes a sense of "estrangement from nature."

Apart from the fine orchestration of consonance in "I believed our words informed us/of their sadness," the disturbing and arresting simile evokes the image of desecration of the beauty and purity of love and nature. I like this poem the most–the thought, the literary devices, particularly the unobtrusive synesthesia ("radiant nonsense"), consonance, and the free and elegant inter-connected expressions in "old Berlin," "estrangement," "sadness," "illness," "soul's habitual roar," and "ancestors" eventually coalesce meaningfully. The thought of the poem is further enriched by a sober and wistful mood and tone.

The interior landscape emerging from the tensions and delineated with vigor and energy in subdued, almost muted, tones, is further recognizable in the first stanza of "House of the Dolls."

Time quite still in every room
yet they have no other resource,
a kind of education; constant smiles
as their hair wears off in patches.

The four quatrains of the poem intensely express sadness, suggesting tension between silent desire and naked unattainability; between immutability and continual changeability; between man and nature. An aura of simplicity envelops the poem. Even harsh realities and problems of life leave a trail of serenity! Yet I am puzzled initially by lines like

We don't want the elephant set adrift
or Wanda sick, making a story short
or the telephone moved from place to place.
("Now Late Afternoon")

There's a tenderness hidden in the tercets of this poem. The speaker, in a muted voice, wants all of us "to learn to shiver" because we are all endowed with "a taste of tenderness." Once again Shelnutt evocatively uses synesthesia.

Some of the poems teased me out of thought; a certain "dumb anguish" seized me at times as I struggled to unravel the mystery of meaning in poems such as "The Glass Reliquary" and "Significance Will Move Again." Though restrained, Shelnutt is both confident and unencumbered in most of her poems, employing similes sparingly and avoiding ornamentation. But I am puzzled as I try to decipher the thought, the tones, the speaker, or the emotion in the first two stanzas of "The Glass Reliquary."

If a word comes to us begging its connotations
the world must answer for the sweet miasma
except the great, inaccessible Ode to Joy.
We should draw lots when our throats rasp
and take turns reading silence to others
who burn to kiss the slothful word.

On the other hand, "First a Long Hesitation," "When Light is Fading," and "The Children" project a lyrical quality and intensity of subdued emotion and disturbing thoughts.

By employing varieties of stanzaic patterns, Shelnutt amply demonstrates her virtuosity, as well as a keen awareness of poetic resources. Unrhymed tercets, quatrains, quintains, and octaves are some of the verse forms Shelnutt elegantly handles. Irony in her poems silently emerges through her extensive application of synesthesia and liberal use of oxymoron.

The poems are imbued with intelligence and elusiveness. Yet a certain maturity binds all the untitled six sections of the volume; each poem eventually builds on the story of movements and of hesitation.

First a Long Hesitation, which is preceded by Air and Salt (1983) and Recital in a Private Home (1988), without hesitation demands much from the reader. Shelnutt captures in her poems human intensity and opens doors of perception, even if such a perception is sometimes blurred, distant, and indistinct.

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 Debating P. C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses, ed. Paul Berman
. New York: Laurel, 1992, 338 pp., $8.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Paul A. Trout, Department of English, Montana State University, Bozeman

Along with combative conferences, articles, books, cartoons, posters, and political computer networks, the "campus wars" now have a collection of essays, a possible textbook for courses that "teach the conflict." Let's face it! Even in academia, war, conflict, and controversy are good for business.

In this impressive collection, Paul Berman provides twenty-one essays illustrating the "debate over political correctness." The essays are gleaned from The Village Voice, The New Criterion, The Nation, Dissent, The American Scholar, and were clearly not written for students. Although I have reservations about using Debating P. C. as a textbook, it is a handy way for both educators and students to catch up on the conflict.

The leading lights of the debate are here, of course: D'Souza, Kimball, Will, Howe, Searle, Ravitch, Hentoff, Fish, Gates, Stimpson, Ehrenreich, but some important lesser lights cogently express their viewpoints too: Rothenberg, West, Fernandez, Berube, Asante.

Although the editor doesn't explain his principles of selection (we are simply told that these essays are the "most interesting statements"), it seems to me that he has effectively balanced the warring camps.

The problem with Debating P. C. is not bias, but breadth and bellicosity. The term P. C. is stretched to include arguments over speech codes, the literary canon, political material in the writing classroom, and multiculturalism in the public schools. While these topics are related and often do get confused, there's good reason to prefer a narrower definition of "P. C."–the endorsement and enforcement of liberal-to-radical ideas and attitudes on a host of social/political issues. Just about everybody on campus knows exactly what these ideas and attitudes are. D'Souza and Hentoff, from opposite political perspectives, use this narrower definition to provide ample evidence for the existence of P. C. on college campuses, though there are still those in this anthology who maintain that the whole issue has been contrived by "dishonest" and Orwellian conservative columnists.

I also have a problem with the term "debating." There is no "debating" going on here, at least not in the strict sense of a dialectic between two people who listen and respond to each other. Only Howe, Fish, and one or two others make any effort to articulate the arguments of opponents. The impression is that the two sides are talking past each other in separate languages, too often using inflammatory rhetoric that demonizes the enemy ("thugs," "barbarians," "hitmen," "incompetents"). It is as if these essays were written merely to heighten the fighting frenzy of the proponents, not to persuade the opposition.

It would have been a better anthology if Berman had included some of the more deliberative "Point of View" pieces from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the position statements of the National Association of Scholars and Teachers for a Democratic Culture, and actual transcripts of debates that D'Souza, Graff, Fish, and others have engaged in. As it now stands, far too many of these essays amount to–in the words of one writer–"a pathetic exchange of rancors." The campus wars may be good for academic publishing, but they've sorely wounded rational deliberation.

This is not to say that rancor isn't entertaining. One of the most amusing pieces here is Kimball's rancorous and "politically incorrect" attack on some 'X-rated' papers delivered at the 1990 MLA convention. There is also some funny fustian in the essays by Kramer, Rothenberg, Berube, Asante, Perry/Williams, and Gates.

The essays that stand out from the fray are those by Ravitch (distinguishing between "pluralistic" and "particularistic" multiculturalism), Howe (on the enduring value, and weakness, of the canon), Searle (on the logical underpinnings of the insurgent challenge to the university), Said ( on the way that P. C. can warp criticism), and Fish (on why it's a good thing that there's no such thing as free speech). These are reflective, temperate, dialectical, and sometimes surprising. Stanley Fish's theoretical justification of speech codes (insightfully using Canadian legal thinking to deconstruct the First Amendment) strikes me as the most provocative and important piece in the anthology, in print for the first time.

In this ongoing debate, the award for the most surprising, and foolhardy, essay must go to Edward Said, a Third-World scholar deeply committed to multiculturalism and the newer criticisms. Nevertheless, Said criticizes race/gender/class approaches to literature, deplores the current obsession with victimhood, and defends the idea of canonicity and the importance of an aesthetic approach to literature, an argument that will no doubt offend most of the radical revisionists.

At the end of his moderately successful introduction to the historical context of the "P. C." debate, the editor laments that "some of the super-radical positions are without expression here, which is too bad." I'm not so sure. Paranoid lunacy can be fun, but more of it here only would have exacerbated the major problem with this collection, a problem best summed-up in the defeatist words of the editor himself: "The debate is unintelligible. But it is noisy!"

I would have preferred an anthology that made the debate more intelligible, and less noisy–and one that provided a bibliography and better proofreading too.

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