New Orleans, teenhood, satanic deliciousness -- all are good news for the novel

March 24, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

As I survey books and scribble, a wan dream lurks forever behind my consciousness: to discover genuinely fresh excitement. Appalled by the tedium of fiction that is driven by morally and intellectually bankrupt "literary theory," I yearn coincidentally for evidence that the novel will survive, will rise again.

Then, all too rarely, there comes a book that would set me to singing from rooftops, if only I could sing. The latest is "Hey, Joe," by Ben Neihart (Simon & Schuster. 200 pages. $21).

It is a brief book, and in proportions a slight one. But it is a gem of many facets, beginning with its cast:

* Joe Keith, the title character, "newly 16," glandular, gregarious, yearning, who plays out as a glorious guide to the mysteries of teenhood.

* Al Theim, Joe's next door neighbor, also an emerging adolescent, amplifyingly contrasted with Joe in that he is developing more-or-less heterosexually, in sharp, occasionally abrasive contrast to Joe's homosexual leaning. A wimp on the road to dudehood, he is very consciously filling out his spindliness: "It was time for abdominal crunches, the dullest part of any deadly dude's daily routine."

* Rae Schipke, wonderfully Satanic, delicious, irresistible, the director of a lushly endowed orphanage which she has used primarily as a bottomless box of boy-toys to titillate her sensual appetites, and as a result is ensnared in a civil law suit in which she believes she has managed to fix the jury with a $100,000 bribe to ...

* Seth Michaels, 26, a sleaze-of-all-trades, an unredeemably valueless parasite with a pathetic little conscience that only ornaments his vacuity of humanity.

* White Donna, a delectably engaging radio disk jockey of alternate rock music, resentful of her obligatory immersion in teenhood, who lives with . . .

* Black Chris, a medical student, who with exemplary premature maturity recognizes: "I'm in a lab, and I look at my hands, and I get lost in this reverie, and when I come out of it I realize that I'm just a little speck. I mean, I am going to help people. ... But I'm not going to be large."

* Sherry, Joe's mother, sucked dry and empty by too-early widowhood, living two-dimensionally at her best moments, but who may, or may not, be moving into the ranks of the redeemed at book's end.

There are others, especially the venue, New Orleans, which, after Joe himself, is the largest character in the book.

The book rides on twin themes: Joe's yearning for love, for his own experience, for an icon of intimacy; and the breakneck resolution of intertwined events, mostly of a sort of thrill-ride evils.

There is marvelous dialogue, cool, sometimes dust-dry, sometimes wonderfully sloppy-gooey. It works. The control of time-sequence is confident, spare, using bits of flash-back, bits of out-of-time speculation, deft, daubing.

New Orleans has been site and circumstance of many a brilliant dramatic success and no insignificant number of mortal defeats. There is question whether anyone can ever write about it in complete freedom from inferable reference to "A Confederacy of Dunces," by John Kennedy Toole (Grove Weidenfield). That is arguably one of the towering, deeply layered and courageous novels of the late 20th century, in which New Orleans stands tall and broad.

There is no direct reference to that here, but an echo. Of Joe, for jTC example: "He was lucky to be here, in this city, full of hope ... Blank. Blank. Blank. That could be your real personality, but your skin and your soul and whatever else made up you, all of the raw materials, would absorb the city. The city did the work for you; when you didn't feel like being anything, you didn't have to; you were just somebody who lives in New Orleans."

There is mastery in Mr. Neihart's structure. Occasionally there seems to be a bit too much awareness of the architecture, but it works. A series of vantage points, a series of consciousnesses, play against an action line that is on-again, off-again deeply rooted in the intense boredom of adolescence, alternating with crackling plot of motion, intrigue, jabs and flashes that border at moments on the fantastical. Joe is a marvelously full character.

A tour of attitude

It is not so much the success of the sureness of his homosexual - and it is to be hoped gay - life that is so effective, though Mr. Neihart captures that with a rare sort of celebratory innocence. What is richer is the examination of the ambivalence about sexuality and orientation on virtually everybody's part, a tour of attitude, an exploration of the rocky trail of gland-drive - and finally of the pilgrimage toward maturity.

At one point in a restaurant Joe is sent a free beer: "A grin swelled up in his chest. There was nothing like being treated with some respect. He realized that his progress was glacial, but still he was making the first moves into being a citizen of the world."

The book ends with the appetites and the evils all tied in a final knot, a bit too simply, too neatly, a bit too easily - but, then, after this rollicking trip it suddenly comes to mind: It ain't over. That's what's being 16 is mostly about.

It is not a perfect novel. What first novel is? Well, actually some have been, including, I would argue, John Kennedy Toole's, but "Hey Joe" doesn't have that sort of heft, grandeur. It does, however, have heart and voice, which is a whole lot. It is a lovely, loving book far larger than its slimness, lean, fresh, dauntless and poetic.

Read it. You will not be sorry. Find in it what you will; there is a lot there. But it gives me, finally, a very cheering confidence that fine, clean honest writing is happening out there and getting published. And that is Good News.

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