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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Hungry Voices, Desperate Lives BY LOUIS DUBOSE GOOD ROCKIN’ TONIGHT By Wiliam Hauptman New York: Basic Books, 1988 184 pages, $7.95 THE YEAR Elvis died is as good a point of departure as any for a collection of short stories. No single pop cultural figure so portended and helped bring about the age in which most of us now life. Not even Ronald Reagan. In Texas cities, most came to terms with His death Presley’s that is. But there are those smaller towns sub-Waco-sized,’ say where life without the King is, well, almost unbearable. Places like Nortex, where His death was certain to result in at least a few people’s already slippery grips on reality giving way. So when Ross Moody’s younger brother, Bubba, decided to trade in his future at Prudential for a white, sequined jumpsuit, an opportunity to become the state’s, and maybe even the country’s best Elvis impersonator, it came as no big surprise. Like just about everybody else living in rural or small-town Texas, Bubba Moody was not a happy nor a fulfilled person. And Nortex isn’t what it used to be. Already the town includes one uncloseted trartvestite, Bobby Joe Pitts, barred from First Methodist after he showed up “looking something like Mary Tyler Moore.” And progress has arrived in the form of a shopping mall: ” . . . a depressing place. Nobody had been able to rest until we got one. There must have been a thousand editorials in the paper about it.” And then there are those residents of Nortex bringing urban culture of the pop-psychological variety back home from Dallas. Worldly men like Harley Otis, who dressed “in polyester pants, white loafers with gold chains, a leather jacket, and a Dacron shirt with the collar spread out on the shoulders.” Just back from a Successful Life course, Harley Otis was full of psychocybernetic wisdom, typically reduced to suggestions like, “You’ve got to set goals for yourself.” Harley’s immediate goal, as “Good Rockin’ ” unfolds, is to get into Tina Eubanks’s pants. Beyond that, he has his sights set on the presidency of the Kiwanis Club. But Nortex isn’t Greater Tuna, either. There is, in William Hauptman’s fictitious Panhandle town, as much pathos as there is humor. Bubba, we are given to believe, by the time he’s run out of town by the IRS and a husband and father of two of his former lovers, is really a better and more interesting man than all the rest who pretty much settle for the old American working class okey-dokey. Cut from the same fabric as Holly Golightly, Bubba will always land on his feet. He’s certainly more interesting than his gynecologist brother, who has lost all interest in women and life in Nortex. And it’s Nortex, not Bubba, that’s lost its direction. “Life’s a road,” Bubba tells Ross. An apt metaphor. “The road,” as Quixote tells Sancho, “is always better than the inn.” But, as Quixote learns in the beginning, the road is rarely as kind as the inn. \(And remember, he stayed in some pretty bad a place like Gillette, Wyoming, the “Boom Town” title of the second of seven very good stories included in this collection. It is to Gillette that a Nortex boy, just out of high school, follows his uncle “to make big coin roughnecking on an oil rig, and [where] the boy could learn a little about real life.” Though the plot suggests a mechanism that might move a modern-day tale of the picaro, Bobby, following his drifter uncle, lacks the pluck and luck by which the picaro survives. And in Gillette, Bobby and Uncle Mickey can’t even find an inn they can afford: . . . One day they’d been out driving around, and Mickey had opened a gate and had driven up to the top of this hill. “Why should we go back to that town,” he asked, “where we just have to spend all our coin just keeping a roof over our heads? Why not just set up housekeeping right here?” Bobby had protested that this land belonged to somebody. It was somebody else’s property. “Sure, it belongs to somebody,” Mickey had said. “He’s only got about a million acres. Don’t you think he can afford to spare us some room?” So they bought the furniture from the Salvation Army, and the ice box, and the three big Delco batteries they used for power. The hill couldn’t be seen from the road, and so far nobody seemed to know they were there. The couch folded out into a bed. On cool nights, they slept under a Space Blanket. At least they weren’t starving to death, and Mickey said it wouldn’t rain for a couple of months yet. In the end, Bobby gives up on Uncle Mickey and looks for the road back to Nortex and perhaps his old job at “Monkey Wards. ” NORTEX, LIKE ANY other Panhatthe city, is a place that tries to take care of its own business. Which is not always easy, particularly since “the bottom had dropped out of the price of oil.” One of the town’s biggest employers, Lone Star Drilling, filed Chapter 11 and the First Bank of Nortex is about to go belly up. “Local ministers were urging a return to the traditional values of God and family. Local oil men were praying for a war in the Middle East: Another oil embargo was the only thing that could save them.” And though no one mentions national politics, I somehow suspect that George Bush will carry Nortex without too much difficulty. But now and again Nortex cares, and reaches out to the rest of the world, as it does in “Hands Across America.” Where things don’t proceed as planned and a group of rednecks picks a fight with the story’s protagonists a family of four struggling to hang together as they take their place in the transcontinental line. Participation in the event, by which Nortex makes the network news, serves to ratify the town’s existence: “That’s why we did it, she thought. To get our picture taken. To prove to everyone that we’re here.” One also suspects at least a bit of autobiographical cartography in Hauptman’s short stories, particularly “Kozmic Blues” recherche du temps perdu-hippie-fiction so good that it will send you looking for the peyote field you remember from your own quest for self-knowledge 20 years ago. The story moves quickly from Austin, where Hauptman attended the University of Texas, to San Francisco in the springtime 18 OCTOBER 28, 1988