'Power and Light' is quirky and wise

July 27, 1994|By Peter Landry | Peter Landry,Knight-Ridder News Service

When all is said and done -- after the yarn has spun out, the laughter faded, and the cast of characters is stilled -- John Dufresne deserves a lot of credit for attempting an oddball genre with his first novel.

"Louisiana Power & Light" is spiritual farce, of magnum force.

There's more utility to this notion than the mere title.

Both raucous and wise, "Louisiana Power & Light" lures us into introspection with humor, and amid guffaws brings home serious truths about faith and heritage, chance and genealogy.

In the guise of hybrid William Faulkner/Flannery O'Connor, "LP&L" ends up asking some very '90s questions:

"What makes it so hard to get to know what we want?" muses the Job-ish Billy Wayne Fontana, our hero. "And when we know it, to get what we want? And when we get it, to hold on to what we want?"

More pointedly, in a time in which transience has become our one permanence, the book dissects how "you cannot continue a journey unless you know from which direction you've come." Even, as "LP&L's" resident philosopher Shug Johnson puts it, "if we keep revising our past to keep it consistent with who we think we are."

"Louisiana Power & Light" is a fabulous family saga, tracing the line of the Clan Fontana from the year web-fingered patriarch Peregrine Fontana sloshed out of the swamp near Monroe, La., "like sin percolating up through the slime of your subconscious."

It is a story of sons -- there are no female baby Fontanas -- and some storied sons they are. Mangham and Bosco, Peregrine's albino twins. Bosco's boys, Jupiter and Saturn. Positive Wasserman Fontana, son of a syphilitic mother, Aphrodite, and later father of Billy Wayne. And Billy Wayne's boys, weak-hearted Duane and the soulful Moon Pie.

The "curse" of the Fontanas is that the line is diminishing, more perversely with each generation. Every dip in the soup comes out a little thinner, to the locals' dismay. When the orphaned Billy Wayne, the last of the Fontanas at that point, is sent off to be reared by nuns, they decide he is to be trained for the priesthood.

Just a year into his novitiate, however, he encounters the sad future songstress Earlene deBastrop on his rounds of mercy at the local hospital. Earlene seeks some bedside redemption, and for Billy there's no return. They elope, struggle, grow apart as he moves from the enlightenment of the Word to the duller enlightenment of a job at Louisiana Power & Light.

It looks as if the line may play out after all, until Billy beds and weds Tami Lynne Curry, and brings poor Duane and Moon Pie into the world.

Mr. Dufresne developed "Louisiana Power & Light" from a short story in his praised collection "The Way That Water Enters Stone." There are times it strives too earnestly for short-story compression.

When it stretches out and breathes, it fills its pages with longing and learning -- about emotions, the past, relationships and the spirit.

It explores how we are nothing unless those we seek to touch, reciprocate, acknowledge, respond.

"The price of love is love," Earlene tells Billy Wayne, who just doesn't get it.

"Don't try to be a saint," she warns. "It won't work. Just try to be a human being. That's harder anyway."

Mr. Dufresne does a splendid job interweaving these concerns with his quirky narrative and cast.

And he can flat-out write a line to art: ". . . Read this story with your eyes closed. You're out on Herb and Marilea Bryant's front porch and it's dusk. You can just about see the blue irises in the drainage ditch by the road. . . . When the breeze kicks up you can smell the honeysuckle. . . . You put your head back. You hear these strange voices."

What ties everything together -- soul and heart, past and place -- is the notion of community, the way an individual connects with family or the world, in the continuum of human experience.

As Mr. Dufresne writes: "We always need to know the second just before the first second in order to comprehend the first second and know the moment after the last moment if we are to understand the end. We need time before time, time after time."

Contrary to the Fontana curse, there is no end of the line. For if there were, there would be no line at all.

The point is driven home forcefully by Shug Johnson.

"Is there a past," Shug asks, "if there is no one here to remember it?"

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Louisiana Power & Light"

Author: John Dufresne

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 315 pages, $22

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