The Spanish word blanco, as the epigraph to Allen Wier’s first novel reminds us, is a remarkably complex word, referring at once to aspects of the physical world and, at the same time, to an absence within that physicality: “white; fair (complexion); blank; yellow (cowardly); white (person); coward; white star, white spot (on horse); target; aim, goal; interval; hole, empty; blank space.” That Blanco should be the title of this novel is, then, particularly apt, not only because its events center around the tiny town of Blanco, Texas, but also because it is informed by the tension within the word, the tension between an inescapable physicality and an equally unavoidable sense of absence in that physical world. The characters in the novel are as fully physical as any in modern literature, of the earth earthy, bone and sinew and skin, prey to age and illness, victims of gravity and the tethers of life in the flesh. But at the same time, they are alone and empty, each one in himself, each one from each other, lost in space within and without.
“No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams seems to be shouting in the background of this novel, and its foreground is filled with things, the things of ordinary lives: garbage cans and tin roofs, pink Christmas tree ornaments and new Buicks, calendars on the wall and dead armadillos on the road, cigarettes and coffee, automatic photo booths and doctor’s waiting rooms, chicken excrement and shotguns. And yet for all these things, the most telling (and striking) thing about the landscape of this novel, inner and outer, is its emptiness. These people whom we come to know so well seem almost cut off from the reality of the world around them, the world that is draining them and emptying them minute by minute. They drive cars and see themselves reflected in the windshield or the rearview mirror; they are almost smothered in the man-made colors around them (orange, pink) but they seldom focus on the colors of the natural world; they write their names in dust (Turk does, June does) as though to assert their belonging in this world they can scarcely believe to be real.
Turk Marrs, forty-five years old, heavy, nearsighted, still living at home with his mother, working here and there, at the filling station or mowing the cemetery grass, tries to come to grips with his isolation from the living world. He thinks of his father, dead now for twenty years and buried in the cemetery where Turk earns some of his living, and he wonders what he looks like now, what his physical father looks like, for Turk has no sense of anything that might last beyond the flesh:Was his hair turned white? Did he still have a white handkerchief sticking out of his breastpocket? Half moons on each fingernail? A knot on his second finger from bearing down so hard on his pencil? Where were all the ways that made a man stored up? Was all that lost, just because time kept moving? There seemed to be no such thing as sudden death, we all pass away a little more every day, drifting like sand down a dry hillside, giving up our lives like loose grass, slowly wearing down, losing our shape, carried away by rains and steady wind.
With the loss of his father, who told tales of his ancestors, the pioneers with courage and life so much a part of them, and who told tales of himself and his friends and of Turk and June themselves, Turk loses the past itself. He is stranded in the moving present where he can only stand still, come from nowhere he can remember, going nowhere he can see, only wearing down, losing shape, drifting down.
His sister June has a larger sense of herself, knowing that she is more than her body, able to imagine herself drifting up and away from her collapsing flesh “through the trees like smoke leaving a burned-up log.” Her imagination fails her, however, when she must deal with that flesh in collapse. She can imagine a gynecological examination as a visit to a room with overstuffed furniture, but even as her fancy saves her from the shame and fear of the fact, it renders her inanimate and dehumanized. Later, when she is having serious and painful trouble with her sexual organs, she cannot bear to know what is the matter, preferring her desperate dreams of blood and violence to the potentially bloody fact.
Both June and Turk seek some freeing action, some moment of turning, some second when they may gain control of themselves and their lives. They seek this action in their dreams, but only find themselves pegged down there as well; June dreams once that she is literally staked out in the median of a highway and left to graze. They seek this action in their imaginative flights, but too often the imagination betrays as well, leads them into grotesque disfigurations of the present rather than saving visions of possible futures. They lack what Coleridge called the esemplastic power of the imagination, that vital process which dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates in order to recreate; they are left only with what he called Fancy, which “must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.”
Much of the source of their imaginative failure, of their failure to use imagination as the re-creator of their lives, lies...
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