What would happen if you, god forbid, you crossed Douglas Coupland with Edward Abbey? The former needs no introduction – he’s created an entire oeuvre of snarky laments about Generation X and Y and their quixotic quest for authentic experience in an overmediated age. Once in a while, Coupland, through sheer overwriting, happens upon a poignant moment which lasts only as long as it takes for him to think up the next whine.
The latter is harder to pin down. Abbey is most well known for “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a landmark novel about conservationist pranksters. But Abbey also wrote smaller, less strident works like “Black Sun” which chronicles the romance between a young hippy chick and a college professor turned forest ranger. In contrast to Monkey Wrench, the poetic triumphs over the polemic. But a book like “Black Sun” is hardly inspirational. It is less a call to arms than a cry for help.
The title, Jokerman 8, refers to the Bob Dylan song. In it, Dylan attempts to “secularize” Christ and his life. So Richard Melo gives us not one but eight Christ figures, straight from the central casting of Douglas Coupland – twenty somethings alienated from their dysfunctional families and from life in general. They can’t get any traction; their culture sucks, the media sucks, life sucks. Until of course they band together for the cause – wreaking havoc on polluters and looters of the environment.
Melo has his moments just as Coupland has his. We are at a tree-in and the narrator is on the verge of an epiphany.
“During the 1960’s, doors were a metaphor for the New Consciousness; opening the doors to perception was what youth subculture was about. Open the door and reality bends before you. That was the idea, at least. This door firmly entrenched in the now unfolding 1`990’s, is different. This door doesn’t symbolize anything. It has a practical purpose. Lifted into a four-hundred year old Douglas fir, this is a real door.
You can’t tell if it’s open or shut; it’s braced in a tree.”
Alas, the narrator goes on to rhapsodize about a polaroid photo taken of a young woman perched in the aforementioned fir which in turn leads to a all-too-obvious, purple ode to the cause.
The book is written in short, epistolary chapters, in keeping with its revolutionary pretenses. But when it comes to rebellion, less is more. The book could have been half its length and twice as strong; the reader needs room to breathe. As much as Melo asserts that what these kids are up is as important as what their parents got up to in Vietnam Protests, he defeats his own purpose by going on and on about it. What made the Summer of Love so maddening was that the ratio of talk to action was wanting. You got tired of the yammering before the revolution even happened.
Indeed, perhaps a far more interesting book would be about old hippies who never sold out. What if Melo had written about a bunch of paunchy and balding fifty year olds still out there on the road going from protest to protest, doing battle with the Man and his evil ways? But are there any out there. Most of the 60’s radicals have come in from the cold or can be found by the FBI hiding out in suburban kitchens baking cookies for their kids.
Will Melo’s heros eventually sell out and settle down? Who knows? He provides an epilogue which is little more than a catalogue of catch phrases and mantras, as if this were the last will and testament of a generational warrior about to hang up his tree spikes and move on. As the forest ranger in “Black Sun” realized, once you drop out, it’s best to stay there.
About the author:
Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at University of Michigan-Dearborn. he is also the founder of Atomic Quill Media