Difficulty at the Beginning,
By Keith Maillard
Brindle & Glass, 440 pages, $22.95
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Dickens's famous opening for A Tale of Two Cities could serve as epigraph for Looking Good, Keith Maillard's final instalment in his four-book novel of mid-20th-century America, Difficulty at the Beginning.
A popular joke has it that if you remember the '60s, you weren't really there. Maillard puts the lie to it. He was there, and he remembers everything with painful clarity. Readers have been waiting for a long time for a novel that would capture the kaleidoscopic intricacy of the '60s, and so far the rewards have been limited. The era generated an impressive body of music and film, but a list of great novels of the time would be lamentably short. Richard Farina's Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest belong. Take a couple of Robert Stone's early works and Marge Piercy's superb, if naïve, Dance the Eagle to Sleep and Leonard Cohen's fierce and lapidary Beautiful Losers and you're pretty much done. Now add Difficulty at the Beginning.
John Dupre, the character at the heart of Looking Good, will be a familiar figure to readers who have already met him in Maillard's three earlier instalments. In those works, Maillard traces the coming of age of this complicated, tortured young man, drunk on language and literature, tormented by desire and madness, and acutely responsive to the dark passion play of American history at mid-century. In Looking Good, Dupre, last seen leaving for Canada to avoid the draft, has returned to the U.S. from his comfortable refuge as a grad student in Toronto, hoping to play a role in the hoped-for Second American Revolution. Dupre is living under an assumed name in Boston, writing for an underground paper and trying to unravel the tangled threads of his sexuality in an affair with a brilliant and equally tormented young anarchist writer/activist. The portrait of this young woman, Pam Zalman, is sensitive and complex, proving again, as in his 1999 work Gloria, that Maillard has a deep and persuasive insight into women.
Looking Good is in part a tender portrayal of that love affair, in part a fast-moving and suspenseful drama of political engagement and betrayal in an American anti-war left shaking itself into ever smaller and ever more embittered factions beneath the long shadow of the Vietnam war, and in part a thrilling crime drama set in the burgeoning illegal drug economy, complete with undercover cops, meth-addled dealers, bad trips, paranoia, busts, betrayals and death.
In contrast to his role as first-person narrator in the first three books, John Dupre appears here through the slightly distancing lens of passages told in the third person. The first-person accounts in Looking Good give us the voice of Tom Parker, a Vietnam veteran who moves in the same drug and political circles as Dupre. And what a voice it is! Richly comic and charged with all the chaotic energies of the time, Tom Parker voice is one of Maillard's great achievements. (His name, echoing that of Elvis Presley's notorious business manager, is itself an elegant turn on the book's themes of elusive and mutable identity. Presley's Tom Parker pretended to be a good ol' boy from the South, but was an illegal immigrant from Europe.) In Looking Good, Keith Maillard has brought his great work to a triumphant conclusion.
Moving with magisterial control from comedy to tragedy and then back again, the book resolves many of the profound themes introduced in the earlier volumes in a coda of superbly controlled prose. Each volume works as a standalone novel, but taken together they achieve a wholeness and complexity of symphonic proportions. Maillard's narrative genius may have been formed in the fires of the American '60s, but it has come to its full maturity during the author's long stint as a creative writing instructor at the University of British Columbia. Readers on both sides of the border have reason to be grateful.
Tom Sandborn is a journalist, poet and critic who lives in Vancouver.