Books: Time Past Is Time Present

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GOAT SONGS by John Weston. 242 pages. Afheneum. $6.95.

A very good novella is crated like a cracked vase in this volume, padded between two undistinguished lesser fictions that serve only to give the book that solid $6.95 heft. The unfortunate excelsior stories, All My Bones and The Call, are summer-weight Southern gothic. in which the author follows the convention of this school by writing about the rural poor as if they were all dimwitted. The title work, Goat Songs, is something else. A series of erotic recollections links a man to his boyhood. The episodes are brief: a flicker of memory, a few moments of musing. Perceptions are intense, and in their heat the flesh of narrative falls away. Memory is capricious, not orderly, and important events occur in the silences between the chapters.

What the reader learns is this: six boys are born in the same summer in a village in the American Southwest. One dies young; five live to manhood. They separate, though bound together by their origin and by a mistress shared serially. No one is named. Each is referred to by his profession: the actor, the poet, the musician, the painter. That is four; the last, the curator of these memories, is a teacher of English.

Various clues—the single mistress, the lack of names and characterization, the fact that each of the four artists withers or dies after reaching renown—suggest what the author is up to. Goatish carnality is occasionally his medium, but he is writing about the mysterious web of past-present, the great arcs of possibility that bemuse a boy and, broken, haunt a man. His six characters are the mislaid and scattered pieces of one, the teacher who dreamed of painting, wrote a little, had a talent for music.

Author Weston, 39, was trained as a singer but now teaches English in California. He takes high risks with his prose, alternating portent-filled silence with runs of gaudy phrase. Yet the alternation works, because the book is an imitation of memory, and visual memory often works that way too. In the end, the teacher finds past and possibility gone, but he has arrived at himself. The author knows what it is to be a creature of time.

∙John Skow