(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The epigraph for David Madden’s fifth novel, Pleasure-Dome, is taken from Byron’s Don Juan. It establishes a tone of nostalgia for the past, fear of the ever-changing present, and doubt for the future that pervades the novel: “Ah! surely Nothing dies but Something mourns!” In contrast, the first two sentences create an aura of immediacy and ambush the reader the way an oral storyteller ensnares his listener: “Did I ever tell you about the time I tried to get my little brother off the chain gang? . . . Oh, I did? . . . Okay, I will tell it again.” Combining an adroit use of the literary and the Appalachian storytelling techniques and devices, Madden merges fact and fiction; out of the American tradition of Melville’s The Confidence Man, Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” and the European tradition of Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, he illustrates the concept of the artist as con man and the con man as artist.

Lucius Hutchfield, the thirteen-year-old usher in Madden’s Bijou (1974), now twenty, tells a double tale. The first develops from a humorous, sometimes vaudevillian episode involving his two brothers, Bucky and Earl, in a bad-check scheme that lands Bucky, with his usual flair for failure, in jail, and from which Lucius (con man as artist) tries to free him. The second is the more serious story of Zara Jane Ransom, an old woman in the mountain town of Sweetwater, and her “fact-or-fiction” romance with Jesse James, which Lucius (artist as con man) wants to write to satisfy his artistic longings.

Lucius, rejected by his childhood sweetheart whom he calls “Anna Livia” and influenced by made-up stories his older brother Earl told him, left Cherokee and, following in what he believed were Earl’s footsteps, joined the Merchant Marines and hoped to sail to India. He signed on the Polestar from the union hall in Brooklyn, served as an engine wiper until the ship docked in San Diego for repairs, and, homesick for Cherokee, hitchhiked home.

As Lucius awaits Bucky’s return on the Greyhound bus from prison near Nashville, he gets a telephone call from Bucky and learns that the law reclaimed him at the prison gates. He is now in jail in Greenbrier, suffering the consequences of being both the victimizer and the victim in Earl’s hot-check operation. Earl, “the brains,” persuaded Bucky, with his innocent appearance, to pass the checks to the proprietors of a department store, a café, a service station, and a Western Auto store on the road from Cherokee to Greenbrier. Bucky was arrested, but Earl has remained free.

Guilt, stemming from an unrealistic but powerful childhood assumption of the world’s sins, prompts Lucius to use the imagination that enhances his desire to be a writer to con Bucky’s victims with stories of his little brother’s hard-luck childhood and with promises of restitution that he has no means of keeping; the victims agree to drop the charges against Bucky upon return of their money. Earl deceived Bucky, Bucky deceived the “marks,” and now they are willingly deceived by Lucius. “How come you ain’t a crook?” asks Pap, one of Bucky’s victims. Madden emphasizes Lucius’ difference from other members of his family by the aspiring young writer’s references to William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Thomas Wolfe and prison writers Cervantes, Milton, Dostoevski, and Genet; by his allusions to plays in which he acted in college; and by his recitations while sailing through the Panama Canal of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Poe’s “Alone.”

The Hutchfield boys evolve from a line of con artists, beginning with their grandmother, who spiced their lives and imaginations with craftily contrived stories; their father, “the lovable drunk,” who wheedles from Lucius the price of a drink; and their mother, who plays on her plight of rearing three boys alone to the fullest advantage. Each of the con men, Lucius, Earl, and Bucky, uses a different method: Earl is fast-talking and worldly; Bucky relies on his air of youthful innocence; and Lucius approaches each situation, sizes it up, tailors his pitiful stories accordingly, and works the con in a more complex manner.

Lucius visits Bucky in jail, and the tough but sympathetic sheriff allows him to stay with “little ol’ Bucky.” Bucky works on Lucius’ sympathies by consciously assuming a clichéd prisoner attitude, peering dolefully through the bars. Madden draws parallels between Bucky’s cellmates, two kids nine and eleven, and Lucius and Bucky as children. (The older boy shot their foster mother because of her mistreatment of the younger.) Lucius finds a captive audience when Bucky begs him to “tell us a story,” and even the sheriff enters the magic circle.

Even though simple Appalachian storytelling techniques dictate the narrative process throughout the novel, Madden manipulates Lucius’ first-person narration to achieve the complex function of an omniscient author, to give the reader information about Lucius’ life, to render Lucius’ thoughts, beliefs, ambitions, and his rationalization for his behavior, and to make numerous references to other characters. Just as in Bijou he continued his “night rituals” like a movie serial of his life, Lucius exposes his mind to the reader; he sustains the unbroken pace of Pleasure-Dome’s action while revealing the seething undercurrent of feelings, checked and unchecked, beneath the action.

Lucius’ con activities to free Bucky succeed until he meets Judge Stumbo. Frank Covington, the prosecuting attorney, and his sensual secretary, Lee, tell Lucius that the judge is immovable, determined to put Bucky on the chain gang. Lucius returns to Bucky’s victims to beg them to try to influence the judge; each tells him that a mysterious Florida lawyer working on Bucky’s case has just made restitution, minutes earlier. In Judge Stumbo’s office, Lucius finds Earl, slick, white-suited, and carrying a shiny briefcase, who capitalizes on a picture of the judge’s son killed in the war by pretending to have seen the boy die, and effects Bucky’s release from jail.

At the crossroads outside Greenbrier, Bucky and Earl go one way, probably to resume their scams, and Lucius, disillusioned, drives his beat-up Buick Streamliner in the opposite direction across the mountains. The theme of disillusionment underlies the folk humor of the first half of the...

(The entire section is 2661 words.)