to Douglas Woolf

David Matlin


There is no novelist I know of who takes such quietly unusual
narrative chances like Douglas Woolf; chances so quietly animated that
a new intensity appears lying wholly outside the codes and models of
the "experimental" or the "post-modern." Henry James identified 
intensity as "the freedom to feel and say." In both Ya! and John Juan
such freedom becomes an act of curiosity applied directly to every word
without prescription or rule. Douglas Woolf's work also risks what
James called "the health of the novel" in terms of the "variety of
paths" the novel might arrive at and discover and in doing so creates
an object that is at once listenable and so wide awake before its
substances that the reader becomes unknowingly sharpened and startled
by the management of the materials and what one man can bring alive by
the invention of a new scale that changes us in our reading.
I don't know of any two novels that capture the moods, the
repositories of dread and wonder, the rupture of a Cold War America
spewing its promises, its nightmares, its precariousness, its
hallucinations hanging under the frozen star fields the way these
novels do. They come to their truths as if the world/desertions which
have become our common heritage happened so long ago they no longer
have any of their sanction. In that posthumous world the "root of
beauty is" and can be once again "audacity" as Pasternack said,
audacity as it is presented in these novels, with, how can I possibly
say it before the withering facelessness of our ironies and cynicisms,
a gentle, intimate, courage giving rectitude which Woolf draws out of
the swamps of our unrelenting betrayals as if it were, to quote the
closing sentence of Ya!  "Down below, the snow was beginning to pile a
little bit," and nowhere and no other time to be, the carriage of the
Novelist's nerve wholly its own in stark ambivalence and living charms,
resembling nothing else and going to the marrow.
Ambivalence itself, particularly in John Juan, reminds me of the
region I call "Home." It is the "Border" with its three sister cities,
Tijuana, Mexicali, San Diego, and the huge desert spaces which can rip
up identity, bodies; the life-beginnings and the life-endings that make
this region so fragile, so powerfully rotten and beautiful, and so
strange. Woolf's characters are the ones constantly running, constantly
transforming as are the "migrants" who can't really afford a stable
identity since such identities get hunted down for arrest, or slavery,
or murder, or the abstraction of being sent back to villages where
there is no water, no future except the immediate future of hypothermia
or heat exhaustion on a sun-eaten hill in the Yuha Desert and you'll
die for sure and dry up into a mummy and experience reappearance in
Plaster City or Bombay Beach on the shores of the Salton Sea where all
the steady and unsteadiest last chances seem to converge for their
sundown dance.
This is a shadow world constantly patrolled, illuminated, as if it
were now the newest quick-draw prison space. The most remote mountains
are filled with used toilet paper, discarded plastic bread wrappers,
cans, forks, coats, shoes and other "items" which indicate a point
reached of disorientation, desperation, despair, and amnesia. Take off
your shoes, pardner, in these wilds and your numbers fall to zero.
Follow a "Tarantula Hawk" on its hunt for the big spiders and you may
find a skeleton or two just over the ridge from your house. The crisis
of environment and population has a secret, unexpected mix in this
world of huge boulders, waterlessness, scorpions, rattlers, lip eating
winds and the Border Patrol hounding and scouring every inch of outland
suburbia and wilderness that makes up this place called "The Border."
Woolf get its dilations, its hungers, its swirling, paranoic, amnesiac
litter cast up on beaches and arroyos and the agents who will carve the
captives into a mosaic of humiliations only an artist with Woolf's hand
and eye can make into the truths we may not be able to live without
before the new regalia of starvations now upon us.