Page 12


after Jensie has been raped by Toral and an unnamed Indian, she refuses food but later “instinct drives her to eat, just to survive. Only when she falls in love with Bernardino [the young boy] does eating become a pleasure.” Crucial to all of Vliet’s novels are the roles of women and Mexicans. The novelist is especially attuned to the inner lives of his female characters, exploring their psyches and sexuality with great compassion and artistic sensibility. Vliet’s Mexicans are by and large murder victims: Bernardino in the first novel, Don Reyes in the second, and an unnamed “Meskin” in the third. The relationships of these figures to the main female characters vary, but all the deaths of the Mexicans hinge in some way on the emotional needs of the three women: Jensie, who is anxious to bring Bernardino home with her after he has freed her, must watch as he is senselessly shot to death by a neighbor; Soledad, who idolizes her grandfather, may suspect that her anomalous love contributed to his death; and Victoria Ann, who has her father’s hump-backed clerk murder her fianc so she can marry a senator’s son, condemns the wronged Mexican laborer to a cruel death by fire at the hands of an Anglo mob. Beginning with Rockspring, all three novels employ Spanish, as spoken by the abductors, servants, workers, Soledad, and Victoria Ann, even though the latter’s Aunt Velma objects to her speaking with the hired help in anything but English. Whether a description of food or a dialogue in two languages \(three counting Nahuatl in Vliet’s concern for authenticity adds both to the realism and the significance of his stories of passion and prejudice and their repercussions for generations to come \(reminiscent of Hawthorne’s The House of The psychological effects of violent crime are traced by Vliet more fully in his two later novels, but even in Rockspring he reveals the impact of rape on Jensie from the moment of her sexual violation, which is echoed in similar scenes in . Solitudes and Scorpio Rising. Vliet explores the young girl’s slowly coming to grips with the fact that she will not be rescued by her father and her realization that she depends for survival on her rapists. In Rockspring the rape scene is rendered metaphorically but powerfully “a give of bird bone, a parting of feathers” whereas in the other two novels Vliet opts for depictions that are more literally explicit, at the same time that he plumbs the complexities and ironies involved: after a passionate lovemaking, Soledad rejects Claiborne, her grandfather’s murderer, even though she has fallen deeply in love with him; Victoria Ann grows to crave sex with the man she formerly loathed and whom she drives to a brutal death by having him murder her fianc. Although the effect of Jensie’s rape is not followed beyond her pregnancy, the possibility of rejection by her own people is hinted at by the murder of an innocent Bernardino. In Solitudes, the novel is essentially a study of the effects of the grandfather’s murder, both on Claiborne and on Soledad, while in Scorpio Rising the first half of the novel concerns the offspring of the union of Victoria Ann Castleberry and Junior Luckett: a sensitive, self-exiled Rudy lives in Massachusetts and bears the physical and psychological scars of his grandparents’ sexual and criminal past and finds his own life repeating an inherited pattern 7 women reject his deformed body but use his mind for, their own selfish ends. Despite the dark side of these novels, there is artistry and even beauty in Vliet’s prose and in his structural designs. On the other hand, Vliet’s diction has always bothered me at times, through its use of a dialect that sounds contrived and often seems unnecessary. The novelist himself seemed aware that his readers had trouble with this tendency when he defended his style by saying “I don’t believe I can write any other way.” Nonetheless, in paragraph after paragraph Vliet moves the reader easily through much history, politics, and religion; descriptions of weather and flora and fauna \(from birds and cattle and horses to insects in church or birds on Cruel Truth BY BRYCE MILLIGAN FRANKLIN’S CROSSING By Clay Reynolds. 536 pages. New York: Dutton. $22.00. 1992. CLAY REYNOLDS, formerly novelistin-residence at the University of North Texas, is not known for writing “west erns.” Thank God. With his latest work, Franklin’s Crossing, Reynolds joins a more august company those contemporary writers willing to look at Texas’ frontier years and tell the cruel truth. This not some heroic tale of noble settlers overcoming all the odds to bring civilization to the wilderness. In fact, the only character of any vision in this story ends up a horribly mutilated corpse. What Reynolds does is to load a microcosm of 1870s America onto a whiskey-smuggling wagon train. It is not a pretty picture, Racism and greed are the operative principles here. Yankees and Rebels still hate each other, Blacks and Mexicans are considered barely human, and the only good Indians are dead. Life is cheap and violence or the threat of violence is the general arbiter of even casual disputes, communication consists of trading grotesque insults, and survival is the highest aspiration. In short, humanistic impulses are not only in short supply, they are a definite liability. With very few exceptions, humane acts reap only tragic consequences. With all that said, one must admit that Franklin’s Crossing is a dynamite book, a Bryce Milligan is a poet and critic living in San Antonio. and places of a distant time or, in Scorpio Rising; of the modern period of communes and live-ins. In all three novels there are characters who learn to deal with the violence, solitude, and guilt of their own acts and of the actions of others, and even though Vliet largely presents the tragic side of life, he is also capable of offering up the comic, as when early in Solitudes he describes a bedroom scene that recalls something out of Fielding’s Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews. The range of R.G. Vliet’s writing is remarkable, both in itself and for the uses to which he puts it in developing his richly layered, historically and existentially plotted novels. Rockspring is the proper place to begin a reading of R.G. Vliet, yet one should not stop there but continue on through Solitudes and Scorpio Rising, only then to appreciate fully the art and vision of a novelist who knew his Texas subjects inside out. “page-turner” as they used to say, and an intelligent one full of characters one will be hard put forget. Take the title character, Moses Franklin. A freed slave whose former master gave him the rare privilege of learning to handle weapons Franklin, puts this knowledge to good use. After stealing his master’s guns and murdering a plantation overseer \(with just and then as a wagon train scout, leading settlers from Jefferson, Texas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Franklin is also a man with a dream. He wants to take a few black families away from the poverty of the Piney Woods, which is little better than slavery itself, and estab lish a settlement on one of the cattle trails to the west. To put his plan into action, he needs to guide one more wagon train west. Late in the crossing season he is hired by Cleve Graham, a one-armed Civil War veteran who hates blacks and is mired in personal guilt. Graham is wagon master for the train, but he cares more for his own cargo of contraband whiskey than he does for the people under his care. The whiskey came by way of a Whitetrash horse-thieving, wife-beating drunkard named Jack Sterling. Sterling’s daughter, Aggie, is one of those winter wildflowers a beautiful but tough as whang leather girl who is not averse to blowing people away with a 10gauge shotgun. As it turns out, Aggie Sterling and Moses Franklin are the two most civilized folks in the batch. Both are touched with a streak of romanticism and a yearning for a world where people are not judged by their gender or their skin color. It is a yearning unlikely to be fulfilled in their time. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17