Art in America by Ron McLarty. Viking Adult, 2008. 384 pages.
In Art in America (ISBN 978-0670—01895-6, $25.95), Ron McLarty introduces us to the world of the artist —the writer, the musician, the playwright, the actor, the painter — as it exists in the year 2009.
Here you will not find the writers and artists normally created by the popular imagination, neither best-selling novelists and electronic artists making six figure incomes nor radicals who slash and gouge at their hated bourgeoisie. Quite the contrary: Art in America gives us a series of portraits of artists as they generally are, real people who struggle to earn a living while still practicing their art, ordinary people in some ways who suffer the same maladies of modern life as the rest of us: unemployment, malaise, cancer, family troubles.
Steven Kearney has written tens of thousands of pages — novels, poems, essays, plays — none of which has ever tasted the sweet wine of publisher’s ink. Booted out of his apartment by his fed-up girl friend, then struck by a car while wandering into the street, he eventually lands at the apartment of his best friend Roarke, a lesbian who brings him back to health and encourages him to continue his writing. Kearney works for a friend in construction to earn some fast money, then is contacted by a woman from Southern Colorado who remembers him from a writing conference and wants him to write a play for the historical society about their town, Creedemore.
Kearney accepts this three-month position and heads for Creedemore. Here he lands in the middle of a range war over water rights. On one side is Ticky Lettgo, a crusty, aged landowner who claims all rights to the water running through his land. On the other side is Red Fields, a newcomer who wants to use the river to develop a whitewater rafting business. As Kearney works away at his play, he must also find a middle road between the warring factions of the town. Lettgo fires on Fields’ rafting party, putting holes through the rafts and bringing the town to the attention of the national press. The townspeople begin to take sides during the trial, with Sheriff Petey Meyers, a recent transplant from Boston, trying to maintain order between these two factions. Soon a radical domestic terrorist enters the scene — she intends to blow up the local dam — and a score of other characters give us glimpses of themselves and of life in the West. Meanwhile, Kearney has fallen in love with Mollie Downs, a cancer survivor and local painter who finds the value and beauty of his writing.
The jacket promos of Art in America uses words like “warmth and heart” in describing the work of Ron McLarty. He is known, we are informed, “for fashioning authentic, well-conceived characters that feel like people you’ve met.”
The above statements regarding Art in America accurately describe Art in America. The “warmth and heart” to this writing are not sloppily sentimental, but are genuine and likeable. Moreover, McLarty has the talent to show us the evolution of his characters in a natural way. Abhorring the radicals who swam the town to take his side and cause near-riots in the street, “Mountain Man” Red Fields moves from hating Lettgo and his stand on water rights to befriending him. Beaten down by life and by his failures as a writer, Steven Kearney finds his historical play a success and a place for himself in the town. Like so many others before him, he has “Gone West” and found a new life. He “realizes that he’s too old to keep beating up on himself and discovers both love and a new confidence.”
McLarty also has a wonderful eye for the humorous, the silly, and the whimsical. Kearney’s introduction to the West, Red Field’s shot-up canoe expedition, the antics of Ticky Lettgo: these and many more scenes bring pleasure to the reader. Performed at the end of the book, Kearney’s historical play brings together all of the characters, sometimes in humorous ways. Here, for example, Suzy, a radical advocating the abolition of property rights, marches into the middle of the outdoor drama chanting slogans, and is confronted by a poet-cowboy, Cowboy Bob. After ad-libbing some poetry telling Suzy to run, Cowboy Bob glares down at her from his white horse:
“Suzy’s in-place marching pumped the scholar’s blood into her already stuffed brain. She smirked at the rhyme and breathing heavily to the rhythm of her steps shouted: ‘I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating an image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man.’ Jean Paul Sartre!
“Cowboy Bob would have to think about that one for a while, but when he heard another round of applause for her retort, he simply lost it. He reared up and fired two quarter-blank loads a foot or so over her head.”
For a country which is often sorely divided by politics and religion, Art in America offers a vision of reconciliation and mutual respect. It offers art as one possible venue toward that reconciliation. Even more, it offers as an antidote to poisonous political hatreds a sense of humor, a humor which in turn promises a sense of perspective and even an understanding of those opposed to us.