Coupland's "Miss Wyoming': Is youth beauty?

January 30, 2000|By Ken Tucker | Ken Tucker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Miss Wyoming," by Douglas Coupland. Pantheon. 311 pages. $23

Douglas CoupIand, the man who coined the term Generation X and has been living it down ever since, reaches back to the Woodstock Generation for his stylistic inspirations in composing his latest novel, "Miss Wyoming." The book is a pop-culture pastiche vhose skipping time-sequencing, repetitious joshing and over-determined whimsy owe much to both Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brantigan, the late, rapidly-fading-from-literary-memory author best known for "Trout Fishing in America."

In "Miss Wyoming," Coupland goes trophy-hunting in beauty-pageant land as he tells the story of Susan Colgate, a pretty girl whose harridan mother ("Only losers win Miss Congeniality, Susan. Aim higher") moves them from their hometown in Oregon to Wyoming, where Mom thinks Susan will have a better chance at winning the state title, and can proceed to mater's ultimate goal: Miss USA Teen.

While Susan is indeed Miss Wyoming, neurotic and unhappy ("You HAG, stop trying to change me," quoth Susan to Mom), this is but one small, if formative, element in her life. Coupland has Susan become the star of "Meet the Blooms," a "Brady Bunch"-ish 1980s sitcom, whose cult status dooms the stereotyped Susan to a life of camp-schlock movies and guest appearances on "The Love Boat."

That is, until she's in a plane that crashes in 1997. Susan walks away from the disaster unharmed, and uses the opportunity to disappear and make various new lives for herself with a faded film producer and a fan who changes his last name to match that of real-life TV semi-star Jon-Erik Hexum, who accidentally shot himself in the head in 1984.

"Miss Wyoming" is clotted with bleak little show-biz references like this; Coupland's clear intention is to show how pathetic the fringes of stardom can be. But Joan Didion, in 1970's "Play It As It Lays," worked this territory more movingly, and the underrated Hollywood novelist Eve Babitz did it more humorously in the '80s. Coupland squanders our patience with tired cliches about falling not "in love" but "in LUST and in LIKE" and flabby similes such as "he felt intact but worthless, like a chocolate rabbit selling for 75 percent off the month after Easter."

The tale flits back and forth between Susan's youth as a beauty contestant and her adulthood as a melancholy has-been; "Miss Wyoming" has less narrative drive than a late-period Jean-Luc Godard movie. Susan Colgate is a derivative figure -- imagine a cross between "The Patridge Family's" Susan Dey and the mysteriously-vanished pin-up girl Betty page, with a larded dollop of Jon-Benet Ramsey tossed into the unsavory mix.

In building his book around a manipulated woman whose latter-day accomplishments amount to little more than guest-starring on "The Love Boat" and serve as the inspiration for a series of warped adult fans worshipping her long-gone youth, Coupland has tried to create a story that elicits sympathy; instead, it's a story with no center.

Ken Tucker is a music critic for National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" and he writes about pop culture as critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He was a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1989.

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