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From an Empathetic Distance James McMurtry’s New Collection Works Its Way Through the Past priest for a few years. I note this only to contrast Alire Saenz’ treatment of religion with that of earlier Catholic writers, such as Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Speaking very generally, their religion offered at least as much anguish as grace. They wrote from a powerful sense of sin, even perdiof St. Augustine, that is. Here Catholicism’s influence is everywhere, but thinly spread. Faith in this novel consists exclusively of comforting rituals, and the sinners are all Protestant \(and named explicitly as Not on victims, anyway. That’s finebut sin really does make for a better story. A blurb offered by Denise Chavez \(and quoted, as if it actually meant something, in a recent New York Times Book Review sums up the novel quite nicely. She reckons this novel is as “Unforgettable as land.” Continued from p.10 Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Texas Rural Legal Aid, cautions advocates of cumulative voting that political sophistication is required in its implementation. “Many Latinos are not accustomed to participate in the electoral system,” Garza says. “And they have been frustrated by a discriminatory at-large system in which they would consistently losenaturally [Latino] participation is down.” To prepare for these new voting systems, he adds, minority , communities must work on “voter registration, voter education and candidate recruitment and training.” But Rios, who was the attorney in the Alamogordo, New Mexico, case in the mid ’80s, predicts that more cases will be settled by using proportional voting schemes. “We have been doing 12 to 13 cases a year for the past several years. People are beginning to take notice. There was recently an article in USA Today and we get calls from out of state.” Rios said that recent court decisions might have increased the public interest in proportional voting schemes but added that potential plaintiffs in lawsuits are paying attention because cumulative voting plans work. The May elections established, and the surveys substantiate, that cumulative voting can work in Texas. In Atlanta, the black community is already looking toward the next election. Maxine Nanze, Veloria’ s mother and an experienced political hand, says that the campaigners who put her daughter on the school board will have to “fight a little bit harder” in 1996. But she is also certain that they can “hold together” their determined political organization. “Don’t worry about that.” By BRAD TYER WHERE’D YOU HIDE THE BODY By James McMurtry Columbia Records, 1995 IF YOU KNEW James McMurtry only through his music, you might be forgiven for thinking him detached. His most memorable characters, like the hapless east Texas loser of “Angeline,” are trapped in worlds of disappointment and loss, paralyzed by inertia in the middle of one crossroads or another. McMurtry portrays them with an uncanny empathy that suggests he knows more about his characters’ sad stasis than his almost monotone delivery lets on; maybe his presentation’s deadpan detachment is a necessary wall separating McMurtry from characters that aren’t all that far from home. As it is, his songs sound like they’d be perfectly happy coming from the mouth of the lone, last observer on earth, after some wrinkle in time has frozen everyone else into motionless action figures. On the phone, there’s not much to contradict the appearance of detachment. McMurtry’s unlikely to elaborate when a simple yes or no will do, and the number of times he responds to a question with “I dunno” is exceeded only by the number of times the tone of his voice betrays that he doesn’t particularly care, either. Ask him whence springs his attraction for his characteristic loners and outsiders, and he responds flatly: “It’s what gets written.” Perhaps when you spend so much time imagining flesh-and-blood humans and pointing them towards the void, distance is a tool of the trade. As a wise man once said: whatever works. The distance works for McMurtry, at least for the purposes of his third Columbia CD, Where’d You Hide the Body, bookishly subtitled “A James McMurtry Collection” and embellished with a logo drawn from McMurtry’s trademark wide-brim fedora. The characters in his latest world are, he says, “a little tougher, not quite so hope Brad Tyer is a freelance writer and music critic living in Houston. less. They’re still the same sort of beatendown, trapped people, but they’re just not as resigned to their fate as they were in earlier work.” But if McMurtry’s characters aren’t resigned to their fate, it’s not because they see much of anything to look forward to on the horizon. More likely that they’re taking a long, hard look at the past. Where’d You Hide the Body is a nostalgic tour through childhood, one long love song to a mid-sixties youth written by a 32-year-old man who seems just a little bit awed by the simplicity of the past, and just a little bit baffled by the complexity of now. Opening “Fuller Brush Man,” McMurtry sings: “When I was maybe three or four / the Fuller Brush man would knock at the door / he’d always tell me ‘boy you’re gonna miss the fun / time you’re old enough the honky tonks / will all be gone.”‘ Later, in the song’s closing stanza, he pretty well sums up his attitude throughout the album: “You don’t too often see a Sunbeam anymore / and you never see a Fuller Brush man or a dinosaur / the voice of reason rules with an iron fist / please forgive me if I’m not prepared to handle this.” It’s easy enough to forgive McMurtry, if the song is indeed autobiographical, since he’s got such a relentlessly sharp eye trained on that cusp between innocence and whatever comes next. “I guess,” McMurtry says, “it comes from having been a kid in the mid-sixties, when things were different.” Ask him what he was doing during that idyllic time and his response is telling: “I was watching the grown-ups.” And since McMurtry was not just your average kid in the mid-sixties, but the son of famed Texas novelist Larry McMurtry, the grown-up watching must have been something spectacular. “We had some odd grown-ups around. I remember Ken Kesey came by with his bus a couple of times. The last time I think I was five or six. The bus was parked out front for about a week. I didn’t think it was particularly odd. I thought everybody had friends like that.” He doesn’t remember his dad teaching him anything in particular about writing, though he thinks he “probably soaked up a little from reading his stuff and more than 18 JULY 28, 1995 700,wr,r.