R(ussell) G. Vliet W. S. Di PIERO - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When R. G. Vliet's first novel, Rockspring, was published … it received limited but enthusiastic attention. The few reviewers who wrote about it … all called attention to Vliet's "poetic prose," though all backed away from defining that toothy phrase. Rockspring was an eccentric book. Though set in Texas and Mexico of the 1880's and peopled with outlaws, cowboys, and a vibrant heroine, the book certainly wasn't a Western in any conventional sense. While the writing embraced the physical realities of the period in almost numbing detail, it did not create an anachronistic, museum-piece world, as the novels of Frederick Manfred do. Rockspring was flawed in part by its melodramatic plotting, but the language was stunning, vital in its rendering of feeling and event. Vliet suddenly established himself as the poet of South Texas, a landscape of plentitude against which men's actions emerged with striking moral clarity.

Vliet's new novel, Solitudes, is even richer, more carefully textured, and more coherent than his first. Aside from its well-built narrative, it offers us again an eccentric and valuable poetic style. One of the conventional strengths of prose fiction is to be found in its leisureliness, the way it relaxes into fictive reality. We associate the novel with amplitude, sprawl, just as we (wrongfully and unfortunately) associate contemporary poetry with leanness and attenuation of experience. Even our best fiction is largely descriptive, a gloss on perceptions rather than an act of perceiving. What distinguishes Vliet's prose style and places him in poetic kinship with novelists like William Gass and John Hawkes is his ability to animate reality, to enact rather than merely portray physical reality, and to do so with such urgency that the words on the page seem about to dissolve and be transformed into the things they signify—a kind of cabala of the imagination. It is this, rather than any ordinary "prettiness" of language, that makes Vliet's style poetic. And I would be tempted to call his style mere magic were it not for the radical questions his story raises about human solitude and its relationship to the huge and abundant out-thereness of the physical world….


(The entire section is 933 words.)