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BOOKS’ & THE CULTURE Many Questions, Few Answers New Stories Illustrate the Predicament of Texas Writing BY LARS EIGHNER THE WOMAN IN THE OIL FIELD. in the first rank of American artistsnot By Tracy Daugherty. good news for Robert, who has not gotten SMU Press. so far as his father. The son has never had 191 pages. $22.50. much of the father. Frederick left his wife and Houston early in Robert’s life, and fa I’m looking for a metaphor. Diather and son seem to have connected only monds in a cow patty isn’t quite it. twice: Robert at fifteen took an art class Perhaps garnets in a schist, or, to Frederick taught and Frederick bedded the take a cue from Daugherty’s title female student Robert had his eye on; and story, a producing well in a again when Frederick returned to M.D. Anmarginal field. No, no, a pearl: derson for his final treatment and his death. something special in the center The father’s final work, a collage, arrives with hard, almost impenetrable stuff at the beginning and the end. The pearl is a series of four short stories which would be a novella if it were all from the same point of view. It is on a reliable theme: the rivalry of a son, Robert, with his famous and estranged father, Frederick; and it has a few reliable clichs: they both are attracted to the same woman. The novel from New York. It is representational, thing is that they are artists \(that is to say, meaning it contains recognizable images, ton, where the combination of enormous olded, finds all kinds of images of potency wealth and modern art has created a Byzanor the lack of it in the work and goes madtium of intrigues of one-upmanship. or else gets the flu. It is all very sordid and artistic. …the Cultural Arts Council of Houston At any rate, it could have been a kun had commissioned a skyline portrait stlerroman, if it had been set up properly from the city’s famous son. Frederick from Robert’s point of view. Why it waswas nervous about itnormally he n’t, I think, is revealed with an examination didn’t work on commission, but this was of the oyster shell around this pearl. for a celebration of Texas images, and Frederick was touched to be included…. he landscape of all these stories is Eventually he produced a large abstract bleak and barren. Evidently this is canvas of brown, orange and gray. the thing in experimental literature: Houston Colors, he called it. The Arts to be laconic to the point of incomprehen Council was thrilled. sibility. Hardly any of these stories is more sparse than “Akhmatova’ s Notebook: That is a much richer story for anyone 1940.” The story line, although substantial with the vaguest grasp of Houston art history, enough to support a novel, has to be disbut that story has been told for ages under the covered from the jacket notes. Akhmatova title, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” ‘ is the legendary Russian poet, who has We meet Frederick in New York \(where somehow offended Stalin sufficiently that somehow he manages to obtain El Patio TV her son has been made a hostage. Who is The son confronts the Times obituary, Stalin simply dispose of her? What does which makes it clear that Frederick was not she feel? We won’t learn any of this from Daugherty, who is content to rely on the biographical background, outside the story, to do his work for him. Eventually the poet writes a suitable paean to the Party, the son is freed, and we have one of the few glimpses of a flesh-and-blood character in this whole collection: the son is not entirely reconciled to suffering nobly for his mother’s art. If only the mother were as human. I must admit that I am no fan of the Literary story, which is to say, no fan of stories without stories. As for the school of thought that a short story ought to be a character study, I think that is all very well provided we do have a character to study. Perhaps the idea of character development seems a little too similar to the vulgar, bourgeois notion of plot, but if we are to have character; sliced thin from time as if for electron microscopy, then it seems to me we ought to have some insight from the fine detail. So why isn’t some of that here? What the FBI wants to know, in “The Observatory,” is why an amateur astronomer in Houston is getting letters from a Middle Eastern terrorist/freedom-fighter. A very good question. Yes, the astronomer knew her, slept with her, but that is not the answer to how or why anyone he could have met or known, anyone he could describe as an American beauty, is overseas and writing to him about pipebombs. I cannot help suspecting that the answer to all of these unanswered questions is that the author does not know. He is not being coy. He has no idea who any of these people are or what they are doing. He doesn’t know why one of them is crawling under cars on a winter’s night in Bowling Green, Ohio looking for cats with supernumerary toes. He doesn’t know why another is a poet, much less a poet political enough to offend Stalin. Dialogue comes in short, jerky snippets because the author doesn’t know what the characters are feeling and what they would say about their feelings if they had any. ROBERT, WHO BELIEVES HE IS BEING CUCKOLDED, FINDS ALL KINDS OF IMAGES OF POTENCY OR THE LACK OF IT IN THE WORK AND GOES MAD-OR ELSE GETS THE FLU. IT IS ALL VERY SORDID AND ARTISTIC. JANUARY 31, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25