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Such quibbles aside, however, Smith deftly moves the reader through Jimbo’s summer of manly rituals: his first real lie to his parents is quickly followed by his first cigarette, his first beer \(and his first real his first sexual experience. From that moment, the story delves into the complexities of the gender wars, as Jimbo tries to find his way through the labyrinth of emotions surrounding Sharon, Waylan, and Vicki, and, by extension himself, Trudy, and a hapless roustabout named Cotton \(Jimbo’s rival Jimbo is confronted with larger and more dangerous issues than jealousy or adultery. He is forced to confront the life-sized terrors facing those who refuse to follow conventional rules: those of art and literature, or those presumed to apply to the complex relations between men and women. Now middle-aged, James tells his story in an attempt to understand the vital and continuing importance of that formative summer. The raw purity of the emotions and experiences of that time and place in American history, he infers, made him what he became. In a larger and extended sense, it made his generation what it became, as well. It is perhaps an accident of our times that so many Baby Boomers are casting their minds and imaginations back to a period before intense social awareness disturbed the “quiet generation” of the fifties, and turned them on to the social activism of the sixties. In novels such as Understanding Women, as well as in some recent films \(e.g., Gary Ross’ a sense of nostalgia combines with the tension of looking backwards: seeking a false complacency that must have existed in the silence before the storm. The sweetness of innocence, illusory though it may have been, was as necessary to that generation as it was impossible to articulate. The fifties were, as Smith demonstrates, a watershed time, when admiration for the power of a V-8 engine was matched by the imagined horror of The Bomb; when men were men, women were women; when virtually everyone considered important was white and afraid of Reds. Smith recreates an era when heroes such as Ike and Adlai were as important as Elvis and Ed Sullivan, when beats and pinkos were the bad guys, at least to “Tail-gunner” Joe McCarthy. Questions about the future were still only half-formed fears and whispered expectations a time of innocence, to be sure, but as Smith’s novel illustrates, also a time of experience. Vicki, Smith’s heroine, represents the proto-sixties activist, an emerging feminist. Sensitive to persecution based on free expression, race, and gender, she teaches her nephew the value of commitment but she also illustrates the cost of conviction when she takes a stand against well established and primitive stupidity. Yet Smith astutely keeps Vicki firmly rooted in a feminine not yet feminist mentality, a sensibility of the era before bra-burnings, legalized abortions, and the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment. As a result, Waylan comes to embody for Jimbo all the negatives of masculine pride and arrogance, as the boy observes the horrible pain that insensitivity and selfishness can cause. It’s not a new lesson, he understands, but one that each generation must learn for itself in its own painful way. In Trudy and Sharon, Smith offers two examples of emerging female archetypes: one enters the world of activism and social consciousness; the other fades tragically into the urban obscurity of a counter-culture in search of self-identity. As with most everything Charlie Smith has written, the novel offers this peek into the past with uncommon grace and artistic charm. His chosen theme young people pitting their personal integrity against expected social rituals recurs in his writing, most especially in several of the stories of Letters from the Horse Latitudes: Short Fiction love and struggles between the genders also informs Country Music the same remote New Mexican oil-patch town. But that novel’s protagonist, Bobby Joe, full of anger and frustration, seeks a self he never quite discovers. In Understanding Women, Smith writes from the apparently more comfortable perspective of older age. Humor and irony play heavier roles than rage and grief, and in the final analysis, the result of the process is wisdom rather than wit. Charlie Smith’s ingenious talent is well displayed in this funny, sexy, and astute evaluation of something we all have in common: our youth. Clay Reynolds is Associate Professor of Aesthetics at the U.T.Dallas, free-lance writer, book critic, and novelist. His most recent books are Twenty Questions: Answers For The Aspiring Writer, and the novel Players. This article is partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League, in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts. APRIL 2, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 35
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