Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz kept butting in while I was reading Goodnight, Texas, the second novel by Texan William J. Cobb. When Gusef, the Russian café and motel owner in Goodnight by the Sea, Texas - a down-on-its-heels fishing village that's run out of fish - would say something like "America the beautiful ... Mosquito-infested swamp with view of ugly ocean. God bless U.S. fucking A," Milosz would retort, "Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic, in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end of corruption."
Gusef, a divorced immigrant on the far side of middle age, is Goodnight's (and Goodnight by the Sea's) anchor, the self-annointed godfather of the crew of actual and metaphorical orphans that populate the book and town. (Gusef sometimes veers toward Borat-like parody, but Cobb mostly keeps him this side of palatable.) Like any good yarn or seaside settlement, Goodnight is home to a Noah's ark of social castaways: Gabriel Perez, the bitter roustabout who focuses his anger on the snowbirds in their tricked-out RVs; Falk, a passive force of nature who photographs the town in decay and finds it beautiful; Una, the restless daughter of a doting Latina mother and a drowned Vietnamese fisherman; and various one-legged, one-armed, twitchy-eyed, drunk-prone supporting characters.
Oh, and a storm's coming - the born-again aftermath of which is foretold by an early, strange omen: a zebra-striped leviathan from the deep (previously thought to be as extinct as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker) that washes ashore with a pony stuck in its craw. The message? The future will be strange, awful, and wonderful thanks to the whipsaw effects of Global Warming - and not everyone will survive - but humans will make do as always, inspired in part by whimsical characters in optimistic books. So, naturally, Michael Chabon joined Milosz over my shoulder as I read, adding to Falk's blind optimism an admonishment that in order to realize our full potential, we must let go of our idea of who we are.
Chabon fana are likely to warm to Cobb's prose, too; it's not as effortless or pithy as Chabon at his best (I thought occasionally of the father's writing lessons in Norman McLean's A River Runs Through It, to rewrite the same essay but at half the length), but it shows some of the same agility with adjectives, as in the book's fluid opening paragraph: "The sea was rising, and into it Goodnight was sinking. Along Red Moon Bay the pink beach houses on stilts loomed above the lapping water like boxy wooden flamingos ... Every day the shrimpers left dock and plowed the waves with their nets, bringing home a harvest of nothing. In the smokeblue aquarium world of the bars, they drowned and argued."
Cobb has also written one of the finest bar-fight scenes I've had the pleasure of reading - comedy, tragedy, and unfocused aggression unfolding in perfect slo-mo, punctuated with a dirty mop in Gabriel's face. Gabriel's fists (and dick, for that matter) are propelled by resentment of the white people who seem to him to get everything for nothing, and his devious plan to exact revenge on Falk (who has hooked up with Una) takes up much of the book's narrative. Which is why it's disappointing when, like Cider House Rules - another story in which emotional and social orphans must make their own family (Oh, hi, John. You here, too?) the climax happens essentially offstage. Cobb wraps it all up with a touch of just-plausible magical realism.
But Goodnight, Texas, isn't a novel about addressing social injustice or stopping environmental degradation. It's a tribute to that most American of qualities - pragmatism. In Cobb's novel as in life, it is often the pragmatists - dreamers willing to work with the materials they're given - who survive the upheaval and rebuild. As the author foretells in the first chapter: "`Gusef` saw the steady demise of Goodnight as an end of this world. But he knew another would rise in its place."
Milosz might add: "I learned at last to say: this is my home, here, before the glowing coal of ocean sunsets ... in a great republic, moderately corrupt."