Fourteen Stories, None Of Them Are Yours: A Novel
About halfway along, just as we’re getting the hang of Luke Goebel’s wild and voluble debut—not so much a novel as a narrative kaleidoscope, putting a few essential shapes and colors through one tumble after another—we arrive at a whole new configuration. We come to the peyote trip.
From the opening pages, the narrator has been dropping hints. In no way shy, and nothing if not a motormouth, he’s confessed that, at some point in late adolescence, he and “a bunch of Injuns” had ingested “mouthfuls” of the stuff. Also, by the time Fourteen Stories gets to the hallucinatory business, in a piece titled “Tough Beauty,” several of the text’s elements are familiar. Once more our narrator stumbles over the remains of his affair with Catherine (now in another country, with another man). Once more an eagle feather floats through the action, perhaps the spirit of a dead brother. But “Tough Beauty” also opens with a detail startling for its very ordinariness. In an ordinary novel, we would’ve long since learned the protagonist’s name. In this one, however, not only does the narrator take his sweet time, and not only does he take on different names in the following stories (“Kid,” for instance), but also this first name proves no more than a stump: “H. Roc.”
The Roc was a monster, and the initial beforehand suggests, by its sound as much as anything, that the monster’s about to hatch. So the narrator warns us, “now you’re in for this story about my ugliness.” He gets more specific with another flourish of verbal pranking: “my breakfall down into crazy peyote bananas.” Soon enough, on some unnamed reservation, H. and a girlfriend—not Catherine, only Julie—gather over the “cacti of knowledge, their white heads […] humming with power. We gobble them through the long lip of unspooled night.” Soon enough: “Worlds warping, preying dark. Here is rebirth, horrid to watch, I’ll tell you.”
Horrid, perhaps, but undeniably fascinating—even entertaining. The wordplay alone can set you laughing, for instance a running joke about metaphors for sex. Fourteen Stories hums throughout, in fact, with unapologetic randiness, and I found the song welcome. The text is certainly “experimental,” what with its loose-jointed syntax and brokeback story structures, and often such stuff betrays a shyness around Eros (see David Foster Wallace, or Brian Evenson). Goebel won the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction, however, with these shaggy-dog tales of a guy who, even out of his gourd from eating a gourd, “took to the gooch of local girls.”
Now, that particular gooch is only in his head. Eating the buds takes H. away from his trip-buddy Julie and into an extended freak show, one that begins with surreal items close by (a folding bow and arrow) and then voyages off to Afghanistan, where he infiltrates the “Hubudabis.” He sips “yak tea” and plays cave tennis and finally breaks through to what might be transcendence. There are “people stepping clean out of the sheer pages of bibles.” And: “The good ones paraded around in the sun and floated and swam to the sky.” Afterwards, sober and back in the motel, he struggles to reconnect with Julie. He takes her “into the bath to clean us off from all the fictions,” and so realizes those fictions include the notion that the naked girl beside him makes up for his runaway Catherine. She is only “hundreds of women that weren’t for me, and I was hundreds of men that weren’t for her.”
A strangely told piece, all about seeking the strange, it arrives in the end at something so run-of-the-mill as failed love. The Roc may be hatched, but he can never soar so magnificently as an eagle, that creature whose feather brushes across so many of the book’s episodes. Each touch recalls a death: the bird’s of course but also, as Goebel’s elements recur and gather force, the brother’s (though we never learn specifics of his passing) and the love affair’s (though we never, ditto). Over time, the feather proves the more consistent and trustworthy vision, combining the tragic and transcendent.
A tough beauty indeed, this story or chapter or whatever—Goebel’s is “innovative fiction” in many ways—may be the standout among an impressive set. As such, the piece underscores the success of the whole, since it’s also one of the longest. Indeed, the very longest, “Apache,” matches the power of Goebel’s motel-mescaline mashup. This author rises to the occasion, in other words, and in “Apache” he does so in third person. He breaks his storyteller’s mold even as he maintains the off-kilter energy of his language. One sample, punning on two meanings for the same word: “He is to outrace a professional horseman, an Apache weathered hand with a half hand black-heeled and two fingers missing, lost from hunting rattlesnakes at night.” Then too, “Apache” presents a coming of age in which the pain is well-nigh hallucinatory, another horrid birth, though in this case the Hubudabis and such inhabit a contemporary dude ranch. Even working in a fresh perspective, and telling a relatively straightforward tale, Fourteen Stories sustains its core concerns.
The dude ranch, by the way, is run by Goebel’s lone developed woman character, and the absence of others does some damage to his abstract-impressionist Americana. If his book reclaims Kerouac’s hegira, as a road warrior in search of the Continental Divine, it also suffers Kerouac’s unvarying male focus. But then, winning experiments in fiction require special focus—it’s not journalism—and actually Goebel’s rendition of the peyote high, while delightful and moving, also struck me as inaccurate. The drug doesn’t yield hallucinations, so much, only distortions, discolorations, but it does destroy the preceptor, the construct we call ego. We don’t go to Afghanistan, but rather lose the landmarks we’ve come to rely on. Yet Goebel’s tour de force swiftly seduced me, and I set aside my own experience in order to ride his loop out past the farther planets and back to the heart’s interior. I got stoned on that tension, the far versus the intimate, in which a man mourns the lost even as he can’t break faith with their promise:
he had always been far away from himself and right there pushing to have each moment deliver itself like God rising from the desert in gold and music and covered in penises, redheads, and virgins […] the great aggregate whole receding with each approach.