Response to David Matlin

Lou Rowan


            The American West starts somewhere beyond the first colonies, something like the Ohio River , the Great Plains , or the Rockies marking its origin, depending on who's telling the story. The acculturating "Turner thesis" equating the West with attitudes of freedom-source and confluence of uncounted sentimentalities-too often resembles license to lie about three centuries of violent colonization, of graphic "planing," Edmund Spenser's term. For the thesis presents the occupiers of the West as visionary winners, when morally and spiritually we are losers, blind to what we have bullied into submission, or oblivion.

            If we could achieve relationship with the geography, geology, with the history and range of the West's native inhabitants-perhaps we'd be equipped to encounter the true story. It's called The Losing of the West, and it's probably too late to tell it.

            But not for David Matlin, whose fictions participate as naturally in Western history as Melville's in cetology and whale-hunting. And just as the fabulous energy and poetry of Moby Dick's language removes artifice or gesture from its style, removes separation between narrator and subject or reader and narrative, creating a continuum like oar and body, so the language-stream of HalfMan Dreamer picks us up and carries us into a new world of belief, the narrative saying YES in thunder in delicacy in mystical enthusiasm.

            Here the energy of the ocean is still there for surfers; condors fly high despite the pollution; the La Brea Tar Pits connect to paleontology traceable in our immediate environment; animals in the San Diego Zoo connect to relatives in the wild. What matters, the matter of HalfMan Dreamer meditates right through the "pasteboard mask" of the zoo, the blacktop, the pollution, the curio "Indians,"-transforming the discouraging phenomena into an epic embodying this continent's relevant decades, centuries, geological ages.

            Action is the focus, even if the action be meditation. Character is conceived as action, gesture-Wesley's bringing Nadia a flower an action, Wesley's character influenced by actions of his parents in fields of weapon-like flowers, memory and meditation active journeys into ancestral history and belief, with gods spirits of the ancestors active, if not interfering, in the epic physical and mental landscape. The lovers' stroll crosses a landlocked beach, a geological terminus to which at least as much attention is paid as to the lovers. Boundaries like sexual "preference" are crossed in good humor. And the language: fluid placement of phrases and clauses, subjects changing within sentences and paragraphs, allowing active associations of scenes that jostle and become each other. The language a metamorphosis or a dictation in Jack Spicer's sense:

The world was the one shaking, settling, rising and falling where whole inland seas could almost drain over night. They tracked the ice front for generations carrying a small tool kit of thrusting lances, choppers and scrapers that could work antler, bone, or wood. Probably their most important sites are now under more than four hundred feet of water. They were carnivores almost as fabulous as the others they'd seen on their wanderings. The Sabre-Toothed Tiger, about the size of the present African Lion, was the best shank artist around. There was the American Lion fight-weighted at about fifteen hundred pounds which, whenever it got its chance, liked the taste of anything including the uncounted bodies of Nanabojo's offspring. And the American Cheetah, jittery as its modern cousin, but for Pronghorns rather than Jemsbucks or Thompson's Gazelles. A Scimitar Cat that had saw-toothed canines like a White Shark, the muscle-packed Dire Wolf which made its timber enshrouded contemporary cousins seem almost puppies by comparison. The one that scared them all however, was the gigantic Short-Faced Bear, a quarter-horse tall leggy killer maybe fast as a Cheetah. Tom Green and Wesley's father did a kind of used car show once, took the skulls of that bear and a modern grizzly and the two things side-by-side gave everyone that day a little bit of the chills. Wesley's father looking from one to the other did a half smile and told Tom Green the Ursus horribilis amounted to about a piece of delicate rice paper. Tom though he couldn't get out what you'd call a return smile said, "A goddamned ugly cousin, and even this ten thousand year interval might not be enough yet."


            Here the narrative enthusiasm continuously wrestles and wields exposition of natural and tribal history. The narrative loses itself in a comparison: leaving the fabulous hunters for the fabulous rival animals, to emerge not back in Michigan but with Wesley's and Tom's father's "used car-show." The animals become characters, the kind of tough-guy lineup a kid might do: "Daddy, could Muhammad Ali kill Hector?" They are transformed from described "facts" into beings "scaring" the people of a world "shaking, settling, rising and falling." The contemporary vernacular of violence ("shank artist") sets up and conveys the timeless attentions.

            You can compare this narrative shiftiness to strings of images in poetry, to the juice-swappings of stews (a favorite word here), or to what critics might call collages. But the point is their energy and vividness, their active inter-engagement of matter, narrative, reader--as in:

But not only is the sea such a foe to man who is an alien to it, but it is also a fiend to its own offspring; worse than the Persian host who murdered his own guests; sparing not the creatures which itself hath spawned. Like a savage tigress that tossing in the jungle overlays her own cubs, so the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships. No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe.

                Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

                Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti , full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!