Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Review: High Plains Tango

A Ballad From the Heart (Yes it's a somewhat sentimental review. I was having a tender moment with myself.) What I really like about this story is its soft, lingering pace. The lazy yawn of a tomcat named ”Dumptruck,” for instance, and the sensual dance of a mystic goddess that goes by the name of Susanna Benteen, better known as “the witch” among the locals in Salamander.

For those of you who saw one of my favorite movies, “Bridges of Madison County,” you’ll know what I mean about Waller’s languid, unhurried pace. In “Bridges,” Clint Eastwood evoked that mood with a musical composition of his own, titled “Doe Eyes,” towards the end of the film. And to complement those simple chords, the Bluesy ballads of Johnny Hartman, emanated from the muffled speakers of an old Victrola. That was then, in the movie, but this is Waller’s trademark, laid-back style, which he captures once again in this wistful novel. Another story underscored, if not with sorrow, then with melancholy―something I always fall for.

First, about the title and the Hardcover book jacket since that’s what attracted me to the story to begin with. I tend to judge a book by its cover and title so I had a feeling that whatever was beyond the dancing, ghostly figure on the cover, clad in a yellow dress, would be ever so nostalgic, and it was. That’s always one of those rare pleasures, when the title and cover artwork blends with the story in such an organic way.

Although, I’ll have to admit that it seemed a bit too romanticized for me but I soon got over it. The last chapter is as beautifully written as the first. Both serving as philosophical bookends to the writing in between, which seems to float somewhere amid the casual and unadorned, almost austere in its approach, which suits the storyline deftly. Clearly, we get from the outset that the main character, Carlisle McMillan, is a man of sparseness, a minimalist at heart.

We know we’re in for a slow, wandering excursion into something familiar, yet something difficult to put into words, wondering if Waller can pull this off―the ending that is, because we get the feeling that there’s a little something wrong with the telling along the way. It seemed as though there was no distinction between the narrator and the main character, and that’s too bad but I had already learned more than I should have about Waller’s own backstory, which inadvertently echo’s throughout this book so I always pictured him as the narrator. (That’s what I get for wanting to know more about the author.)

I’ll also admit that I skipped several chapters where a feud about the construction of a highway through sacred ground, took over and broke through the wonderful stillness that Waller, up until then, had so wonderfully managed to evoke. Yes, it’s conflict, but the kind of conflict that goes on for too long and with far too much detail. It seemed off key to my ear--cutting against the grain for this kind of story, to use a metaphor that Carlisle McMillan would appreciate.

The “mandatory” sensual scenes come across as awkward and almost gratuitous, compared to the overall tone and context of the story, but tastefully written nonetheless. Here again, my fault for delving too far into Waller’s background. (I know, I know. My psychiatrist has pointed out that I blame myself way too often.)

I just couldn’t get Waller’s image out of my head--his McMillan-esque ways and looks. It’s one of the reasons why high profile actors refuse to give interviews. It really spoils the mystery between the actor and the character they portray--the ability for the reader in this case to disassociate the main character from the narrator who also sounds like the author.

For me, it’s almost as if Carlisle McMillan and Robert James Waller were the same person. In my own mind, based on what I already knew about Waller, that seemed to ring true, and a little too close for comfort for my taste.

An aside: It’s a lot like when J.D. Salinger came out of hiding after 40 years of self-imposed seclusion. It was as if the mystery behind “The Catcher in The Rye” dissolved right before my very eyes. Especially when the 90-year-old Salinger commented on a scene from a Terminator movie, saying: “Holy crap, was that fucking cool or what?” Something outrageously disconcerting to that effect. Can someone please shoot me now? I’ll never be the same. Thank you.

Okay, as an author myself, not that I’ll ever reach the notoriety of Salinger or Waller, but I’m going to stay in hiding and keep my big mouth shut, just in case I ever do write a classic story―like Harper Lee. I just don’t want to spoil anything for the readers. Lord forbid.

All that nonsense aside, I don’t think this story can match the sadness of “Bridges” either, but we eventually realize that it is not meant to. Waller paints these words with honesty, longing, and a quietness that is both magical and gracefully inaudible at times.

Maybe even as lonely, as a High Plains Tango.


Okay, you get the picture. Scratch the needle across the record. Here’s my favorite line in the book:

“It’s a Tango, you dumb bastard.”

BTW, this book has gotten many mixed reviews and for good reason. I believe that Waller is an excellent writer and that's clear based on the first and last chapter of this novel. But something happened in between, from chapter 2, in fact, that didn't ring true with most of this story. An environmental message and what seemed like a first draft as far as concepts go, permeated the middle of this story.

That's a shame because it almost comes off as a bad story, sandwiched between a great lead-in an a sentimental ending, which is the last impression one gets and the reason I liked it so much. Maybe this proves what they say: that the most important parts of a book are the first ten pages and the last ten pages. If that's the case, this book is the quintessential example of just that.

A contradiction in my review?
I know this comment may seem a contradiction to my review, and it is in hindsight, but the storyline I referred to between bookends, was referencing the pace of the story, not its content.

One more thing!
Amazon, I hope you run my review as is and don't edit the profanity like you've done in the past. I really don't get it. What's the big FUCKING Deal?