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Difficulty at the Beginning, Book 1

By Keith Maillard

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Brindle & Glass, 152 pages, $14.95


Difficulty at the Beginning, Book 2

By Keith Maillard

Brindle & Glass, 288 pages, $22.95

Lyndon Johnson and the Majorettes:

Difficulty at the Beginning, Book 3

By Keith Maillard

Brindle & Glass, 160 pages, $14.95

Early books can be a problem. Often over-heated with the fevers of youth and over-influenced by revered models, early offerings can sometimes come back to haunt the embarrassed author in mid-life.

Vancouver novelist Keith Maillard, long one of the resident mentors for young writers at the University of British Columbia creative writing department, and the author in 1999 of the Governor-General's Award short-listed Gloria, has found a way to finesse the early-book problem. In the early 1980s -- long before the GG nomination, a short listing for the Commonwealth Literary Prize in 1996 or the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize (for the moody, disturbing Vancouver novel Motet, in 1990) -- Maillard published The Knife in My Hand and Cutting Through, both interesting and competent, but unmistakably the work of a young artist still developing his talent. Now Maillard has revisited and recast these imperfect works as elements in a new and ambitious quartet under the general title Difficulty at the Beginning, a novel much darker, richer and more fully imagined than the ur-material on which it is based.

If you recognize the reference in the over-all title to the I Ching, the book of Chinese divination and wisdom that was so popular during the counterculture years of the 1960s and '70s, you are likely of an age to share many of the mid-century memories that Maillard evokes in this sweeping, eloquent and acutely remembered work. Like John Dupre, Maillard's central character in the quartet, you may still remember your first kiss, first joint and first heartbreak, accompanied by a soundtrack of rock and roll on a tinny car radio. The new work captures the sounds, look and smell of the late fifties and sixties with pitch-perfect accuracy.

No matter what your age, you will be moved and impressed by the luminous prose of the first three instalments in the promised quartet, and look forward, as I do, to the appearance in September of the remaining volume, Looking Good.

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Set like the earlier works in a Wheeling, W.Va., thinly disguised as "Raysburg," the first three volumes follow Dupre from high school in the late 1950s on into the cultural and political tumult of the 1960s. Although the concluding episode of this ambitious quartet won't arrive until fall, the three volumes in hand are more than enough to take the measure of what Maillard is up to. This work records not only the coming of age of one fully realized and memorable character, but of an entire generation in a pivotal moment in history.

In Running, Maillard introduces the reader to Dupre, a fierce, passionate and deeply troubled kid in Raysburg, caught up in storm fronts of teen lust, extreme athleticism pushed to the point of transcendence, and the pursuit of literature as a contact sport. Dupre and his sidekick, Lyle, are an unforgettable duo, torturing themselves on the track and in Raysburg's beer joints, fitfully illuminated with an avid hunger for intense experience, and confiding in each other endlessly about their spiritual and intellectual ambitions and their fever dreams of sex and romance. They throw themselves into books with the same single-minded enthusiasm they bring to their training as runners and their baffled fascination with girls.

This is a narrative rich in sensual detail, ranging from the runner's heat and salt to the apprentice drunkard's vertigo and elation, from the intoxicating thrills of unslaked desire to the odd visual delights of small, grey U.S. city streets at mid-century. Running is, in the end, however, most fundamentally a novel about conversation, friendship and shared thought, a genuine and persuasive portrait of the artist as a young man. It is also a meditation on troubled American masculinity, offering profound and alarming insights into how it is constructed and how it can go terribly wrong.

With Morgantown and Lyndon Johnson and the Majorettes, Maillard extends John Dupre's story into the tumult of the 1960s. Morgantown gives us Dupre as a heavy-drinking college student, an early wearer of the counterculture uniform of cowboy boots, blue jeans and guitar, and an activist in the burgeoning U.S. peace movement.

Like his earlier incarnation, Dupre in Morgantown lives in a febrile haze of desire and terror, anguished, as almost all American men are, by the excruciating contrast between the hard-edged phallic version of manhood proposed by the culture and the moist, murky confusion of a personal sexuality as it is lived in the suffering flesh.

In what may turn out to be the quartet's single most effective set piece, Dupre flees a night of sexual failure and confusion. His flight takes him out to the highway and into the cab of passing long-haul truck, where the 18-wheeler's demonic driver subjects him to a dark night of the soul more frightening than anything in American Psycho.

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This passage is one of the moments of the surreal that occasionally shift the tone of Maillard's narrative away from his otherwise linear and matter-of-fact voice toward the language of dream and nightmare, dealing with the intricate lines of force that connect desire, madness and violence in the dark circuitry of the American mind.

The nightmare of American manhood, being acted out in the public sphere by warmakers and politicians, is clearly and persuasively traced back to its lethal, chthonic sources in the solitary heart. This is brave, eloquent writing.

Dupre's subsequent spiral downward into madness is also rendered with heart-stopping precision and power. These passages, in which Dupre sets out to starve himself into enlightenment and away from the humiliating pressures of adult sexual desire, are harrowing and ugly, but they provide insight into the particulars of Dupre's character and the larger madness of his moment in history.

If Morgantown is haunted by the dark confusions about sex and power that lie at the core of American masculinity, Lyndon Johnson and the Majorettes is haunted by the spectres of the Vietnam War, the draft and Lyndon Johnson himself. The descent into madness that completes the action in Morgantown has lost Dupre his student draft deferment, and Lyndon Johnson and the Majorettes shows him wallowing in a long West Virginia summer, fat and greasy with food, beer and terror as he awaits the summons from the draft board.

Maillard has come into his own as the poet laureate of eating disorders. I can think of no other writer who captures the antic pleasures of anorexia and the sodden, sedating impact of overeating as well as he does. Good sex writing is nearly impossible, and decent prose about our uneasy relationship to food is even more difficult, but Maillard manages to write well about both Eros and appetite.

Difficulty at the Beginning is clearly Maillard's most accomplished novel. There are, to be sure, a few lapses, moments in which the otherwise persuasive narrative voice falters and falls prey to verbal tics. For example, I could have done with far fewer passages introduced by the phrase "On one level . . ." But this is a minor complaint about a book of terrible beauty and grace, full of absolutely believable characters and suffused with painful knowledge about the American heart at mid-century.

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If September's Looking Good sustains this quality, Keith Maillard will have created a masterpiece fit to contend with the best novels of the last century. Maillard's small but devoted base of readers will welcome this venture, and new readers will find in it a superb introduction to a major North American talent.

Tom Sandborn is an investigative journalist, poet and critic who lives and works in Vancouver.

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