Remembrance of Things Better Forgotten

Books

WHILE IT MAY NOT guarantee talent, sincerity deserves an ear. But dirges to the lost innocence of our psychedelic years have been droning for some time now and one more heartfelt sob on the subject risks a poor audience: the ear has tuned out.

Lee Richmond's High on Gold--and the title speaks for itself--is a swansong from the heart that seems to have taken rather a long time getting to the mouth. Five years in the composing is slightly ridiculous, given the product. Given the timing, it's a little pathetic--like a guest who arrives when the party is over, strewing confetti over an empty room and playing Cassandra after the fact.

Banking heavily on the nostalgic value of the counterculture, High on Gold tries to resuscitate a dead dream. But it makes a grievous mistake, breathing the deceased's own air into the corpse. The result is a fast-moving, mildly absorbing but less than illuminating afternoon of light reading. No new light is shed on the matter, and the narrative shares the traits of its subject to a fault. Absence of mind may be appealing enough in the intoxicated flesh. But mindless prose about mindless protagonists, mindlessly cavorting in and out of bed from Cambridge to California, on this, that and and the other variant of a chemical lobotomy is next-of-kin to sheer trash.

NEVERTHELESS, the portrait is only too true. Despite his sometimes sentimental attitude towards the Aquarian paradise and his simplistic account of its corruption by the media, Richmond has drawn a life-sized and realistic picture: His protagonists are not "hippies." They are individuals, children of the bourgeoisie, living entirely for the very stoned present. Young, confused, vulnerable, and tragically in love with the idea of a spontaneous revolution, they live out a morality of egoism to which even the petty cruelty of schoolchildren is preferable. There at least is a coherent ethics, compared to which Richmond's counterculture is a veritable jungle. The sexism is vicious, the community is haphazard, and the allegiance is nil. Still the author insists on romanticizing the squalor, to the extent where any of its exposure begins to look like the work of the reader. The sexism, in particular, was quite certainly not intended as such, and while I found it sick, and not even good pornographically, there is no doubt in my mind but that Richmond has only a celebration of healthy sexuality in mind.

No doubt but that the intentions are good. But intentions alone don't make a good story. Happily Richmond has done one or two interesting things that distract from the conspicuous banality of his prose. Midway through his narrative he includes an account of Joshua Aarons, a Victorian renegade who joined the Gold Rush, decamped to the Indians, and burrowed into a cave, leaving his diary of reminiscences and prophecies as testimony to the historicity of counterculture. Historicity or no, Joshua Aarons lends the author an opportunity to affect a Victorian prose style, demonstrating that Richmond can in fact do more with his pen than mumble, groan, and bump through the motions of sex and stoned-out soliliquies.

THIS AND a few other rare moments of lucid, controlled, and articulate insight are promising. The closing passage of the book, in which the main and least heroic character stumbles across his authentic self in the role of the Jester, playing the Fool, is astonishingly effective and almost beautiful. But like so much else about this novel, even this is belated. Revelations in a puddle on the very last page don't exactly compensate for the foregoing wade through 400 pages of ankle-deep slush.

High on Gold is Richmond's first novel, and there's much to be learned from it, although admittedly more in the line of the How Not To, than the How To. But still, there are enough happy accidents here to make it worth another go. For the main problem is, that like most first novels, Richmond's is myopically autobiographical. That's a disease that is sometimes curable with age.