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Sluggish Nonsense

BOOKS

By Judy Bass

The late Sixties saw a burst of cultural symbolism--each product of which was greeted with either glee or derision. Every milieu made its own contribution. The fashion industry bestowed the miniskirt, musicians drummed up acid rock, drugs brought their own cults etc. etc. In retrospect, these symbols elicit smiles--even laughs--of recognition from those who participated in, and watched their rises to popularity, and subsequent plummets to oblivion. Still, they deserve sober contemplation. The apolitical, self-absorbed demeanor of many members of the present generation decrees that these social signposts be regarded as fads. Such a viewpoint belittles the cumulative impact of these Sixties trademarks. They exist now only in our memories, yet, at that time, all had a particular social purpose; none were merely inventions of an aberrant Madison Avenue mind. In his novel Home Free, Dan Wakefield reduces the symbols of the flower child era to cliches and stereotypes, and in so doing, he joins the ranks of those who wrongly dismiss the outgrowths of that period as psychedelic nonsense.

The book's protagonist, Gene Barret, (misspelled relation of Oliver?) is an ambulatory cliche. Forced to endure a college education at the insistence of his father, Gene floats from one campus to another, accumulating credits, and a paucity of genuine academic knowledge. His list of truncated enrollments growing, he dauntlessly pursues the elusive college degree at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. There, in a gut history course called George Washington One, Gene meets Louise Fern, teacher and future room/bed mate.

Lou's propensity to date other men unnerves Gene. His sexual and romantic fidelity evidently is superflous to her, for she engages in dalliances with all comers. The coup d'grace occurs when Gene arrives home to find Lou sharing a Pabst Blue Ribbon with dapper Steven Alexander, math teacher at Boyton University. His outraged reaction and her unwillingness to be relegated to one man precipitate the couple's breakup, an event that sends the free-lance student reeling through Maine, Iowa, and California.

The people Gene encounters on that trip add nothing. This undistinguished group includes Barnes, a writer of insipid mysteries with titles like Death of a Deb; Flash, sports entrepreneur and president of the North American Curling League, Stella the Divorcee, an oversexed blob usually clad in "Omar the Tentmaker" originals who does things Erica Jong is afraid to even dream about; and Lizzie, a confirmed epicurean who thinks truck stops are the "best places" to eat.

If Home Free were a scathing satire, it would be far more palatable. The author seems to feel that the attitudes and symbols of the late Sixties deserve some resounding criticism yet he doesn't deliver it in a credible manner. Rather than utilize the device of ribald humor to jibe at the mores and habits of the time, Wakefield has written a book lacking in wit and devoid of genuine style. As for evoking the mood of the period, his effort to throw in a bunch of song snippets, stereotypical characters, and references to Vietnam falls well short of the mark.

The characterizations in Home Free are lamentable, both for their lack of depth, and the author's decision to describe them, rather than having them speak for themselves. This passel of one-dimensional people is hopelessly dull, for none of them is developed beyond the most elementary level. Each is introduced, described, and shown taking a path which either intersects or diverges from Gene's travels. No extra attention is given to making these people more memorable by depicting them in fuller detail. Wakefield's choice to eliminate dialogue is an unfortunate one, since some intelligent conversation between these characters might have salvaged the novel, even marginally.

"Hey, Barnes," Gene said, hoping to head off him and Nell, "You looked anymore?"

"For what?"

"Home."

"Yeh."

"Where?"

"Vermont."

"What happened?"

"Nothing."

"How?"

Then, a little later on:

"What you see, babe?"

"Shadows."

"Oh."

The author seems to adhere to the idea that people under the age of forty-five use the words "yeh", "babe", and "Man" to punctuate every sentence at least twelve times, although there are some variations on this theme.

The book is a listless litany of episodes straining to be clever, but failing ignominiously. The only "action" in it has to be supplied by the reader--when he closes the volume.

Home Free's plot is aimless. The lack of focus--if intentional--may be an attempt to symbolize Gene's restless drifting, but again, it could have been handled more deftly. Wakefield is continuously showing him moving, from one university to another, one lover to the next, one town to the next. Everything moves but the plot--which is relentlessly stagnant. Everybody has a threshold of boredom. Home Free surpasses even the highest tolerance for sluggishness in fiction.

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