Dining at the

John Weston
John Weston grew up in Skull Valley, Arizona, and went on from there to be an acclaimed writer and teacher. Dining at the Lineman's Shack is a funny, soulful tribute to his mother Elione who, during the worst of the depression, kept her family together and fed, all of them jammed into a trashed-out shack at the edge of the Arizona highlands.

But, Dining at the Lineman's Shack is more than a biographical tribute. It's an experienced writer's artful reworking of his early life, concentrating not only his resourceful mother (absent husband, four sons, a daughter, no money in the till) but on her direct, simple philosophy of life, and most of all, her cooking. She was one of those masters of the kitchen who was able to make a singular repast out of little or nothing.

Intermixed with these tales of life at the edge are some twenty or twenty-five recipes --- including one I have been trying to find for years: Basic Red Chile Sauce, the main garnish for most worthy Mexican cooking, utilizing dried New Mexico red chiles, blackened tomatoes and acres of garlic.

Weston knows how to grab one's attention from the very first page when we find ourselves eating barbecued mountain lion, to the last, where he tells of a pack rat's nest which, it has been discovered, though carbon-14 dating, may have existed for different generations for 10,000 years. The whole book is a diverting accounting of life of a time when one could live off the land. The picture that emerges of Elione and her brood is as gentle as Laurie Lee's magic saga of growing up in rural England, The Edge of Day. And the mixing of food and family history has been with us since Betty MacDonald's Egg and I and Mary F. K. Fisher's Serve It Forth and has become a staple part of all our literary diets.

It's especially good for us cheapskates who don't want to buy both a biography and a cookbook, but the author here does strain it somewhat with dishes that call for Grand Marnier and balsamic vinegar, something his mother probably didn't see in her lifetime. Weston's style of writing is assured and winning, and it seems pettish to complain. He presents, for example, a portrait of Eloine's lowly jar of drippings

    which always resided on a wing of the stove or on the drainboard, stratified in layers, white, brown, honey golden, bits of past meals ambered, in suspension for another use ... Many main courses from Eloine's skillet tasted reminiscently of their forebears, an ever-deepening complexity of flavors.

Or this, on those dreadful sex-education films that all of us had to watch fifty years ago, "slide shows or jerky films that ran off their tracks, jammed, or burned up regularly:"

    These educational marvels, supposed to show the operational equivalents of procreation in cross section, radiated a darkness more profound than algebra, as if to say, Now that you've seen a bit of light, let's show you how really dense you are.

His mother emerges from this book in such elegantly understated prose that we find ourselves falling in love with her. She's painted with no sentiment, no glossing over, and thus she comes across as one of the millions of heroic people of that era who suffered from a damnable poverty and survived ... and made sure the family survived as well.

She was one who could cook up a spicy sauce to disguise the fact that the children were eating what they call "variety foods" --- heart, brain, kidneys, ox-tail, and the like. Weston's confessed dislike for liver shows that his mother never was able to disguise the flavor enough to suit him. Too bad we weren't there: calf's liver should always be very fresh and bloody, cut very thin, fried in a sizzling mix of butter and vegetable oil, with ten or twelve fresh limes squeezed over it as it cooks, served the moment that the insides cease to be rosy. Onions and bacon need not apply.

Weston's later chapters don't show the same verity as the earlier ones. The book trails off in complaints about Baptist preachers, modern schooling, and present-day cookery. There's a vague story of the author's trip though Greece with a man who asks, "I wonder which of us is the more crippled," and another that takes him through North Africa in the company of a man with "tawny eyes ... like a cat's."

There can be a beauty in literary vagueness, but such tales injected into a book whose art lies in its detail (nothing can be as detailed as recipes) do seem out of place. Still, one cannot help but be beguiled by a writer who can, for example, in a single image, capture our occasional unintended cruelties: "It seems as if it's the little inhuman misdemeanors we commit, even without malice, that cling to our fur like baby monkeys."

Or who can capture the dragonfly, looking at one

    with bulbous, quiet eyes from a face made of a layer of chitinous flesh or whatever insects are constructed from

then biting

    at your fingertip, a mere touch, with a mouth that, if blown up with an electron microscope, would give the bug movie guys bad dreams,

"Feet of tiny grasping claws at the end of needle legs...their tails were long and sectioned like miniature loin roasts tied for the oven," he concludes --- an appropriate image for book about child-wonder and good food.

--- R. J. Fenley, MA

City on Fire
The Forgotten Disaster
That Devastated a Town and
Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle

Bill Minutaglio
It happened on April 17, 1947. A French ship --- the Grandcamp --- caught fire and exploded in the Texas City harbor (Texas City lies on the eastern Gulf Coast, not far from the Louisiana border). The ship was filled with sodium nitrate, a compound used in fertilizer, but, as well, in the manufacture of bombs. And it didn't end with just one ship exploding, for in the vicinity there were "catalytic crackers, cracking furnaces, steam, superheaters, domed oil storage tanks, catwalks, condensors ... all of it coursing with the liquid lifeblood of Texas City: millions of barrels of oil, gas, benzol, propane, benzene, kerosene, chlorine, styrene, hydrochloric acid, and a necromancer's trough of every other petrochemical imaginable."

    For decades, this billion-dollar stretch of oil refineries, oil tank farms, and chemical plants has been turned into one of the most lucrative, strategic petrochemical centers in the world by the Rockefellers, Howard Hughes, and even the far flung members of the Bush family.

As the author points out, when disaster struck, "It claimed more lives on American soil than any other man-made disaster in the twentieth century."

    Thousands of people were killed or wounded, a fire department was erased, planes fell from the sky, oceangoing freighters vanished. The most powerful people of the era --- the president, Supreme Court justices, military commanders, Hollywood superstars, FBI directors --- were drawn into the plot.

The ship blast and the resulting explosions and fires took weeks to extinguish. The official figure was 581 dead but was probably much higher. Hundreds of people were simply vaporized --- and not a few, suggests the author, disappeared because it was a convenient time to walk away from their lives.

Minutaglio places several characters in the center of the tale --- the improbable liberal mayor of the city, Curtis Trahan; a mesmerizing Catholic priest, Bill Roach; a black minister, Rev. F. M. Johnson; and a tug captain, Henry Dalehite. We see the disaster through their eyes, coming to a culmination at 9:12 A.M. with the first explosion. The pacing is perfect: one knows it is going to happen but keeps wanting something, anything, to intervene.

The real interest here is not only in the disaster itself, but in how the disaster affected the community, changed people's way of viewing the world. Texas City was part of the south, and thus was completely segregated, but fleeing the initial explosion were "dozens of white people coated black with the oil and molasses. As they run along Texas Avenue, there are some black residents from The Bottom [the black part of town] fighting their way out of collapsed storefronts. They are coated white from the cascading asbestos." Some of the white patients are so coated with the tarry stuff that they end up for days in a segregated hospital --- the charity hospital for Blacks.

The author puts off the actual moment of disaster long enough to keep us in suspenders. The second and third acts are as gripping. Where to bury the sixty-three unidentified dead? Nearby towns refuse to make land available to bury them. Why? Because in the all the little bits and pieces left over from the victims, it was possible there might be body parts of Blacks or Mexicans.

Finally, there's the question of the defense department and the large corporations that created this witch's brew. Were they going pay those who suffered loss of family, home, jobs, and good health because of their neglect of safety concerns? This was years before American tort law had evolved into today's public and private accountability for such a disaster. After eight years of tough litigation, those who were adjudged to have a valid claim ended up with an average of slightly over $12,000 apiece. The corporations --- Monsanto, Union Carbide, Amoco, Humble (now Exxon) --- got off scot-free, and were able to rebuild on the ashes with few changes.

--- Warren Groves

A Version
Of Love

Millicent Dillon
Lorle has a problem. She doesn't know where her body stops and her mind begins. So she goes to a San Francisco shrink by the name of Edmond. She works with him for three years to solve this mind/body paradox.

He suspects that she is a hysteric vide Harry Stack Sullivan, who said that hysterics led

    a kind of pseudo-life, always dramatizing, exaggerating, using other people as shadowy figures, as an audience for their own performance, they shifted so quickly, one moment they were in the depths of despair, and the next in a kind of euphoria, as if they were constantly acting out a fiction that had little if any relevance to real life.

When we first meet Edmond and Lorle, they are far from the consulting couch in his office. Rather, they're on a couch in the California mountain country for another type of therapy. It may not be in the best interests of the patient, but it's the 1960s and experimentation is in the air.

Problem is that when psychiatrist and patient make the beast with two backs, it sets the treatment back a little, especially when he finishes up and tells her he is opting out of any further intercourse, physical or mental. On top of that, in his moment of ecstasy, Edmond yelled out, "I told you I'd fuck you you bitch!" He also wakes up at night and barks like a dog. She's not sure what this all means. Nor, alas, is the reader.

Dr. Edmond recommends another shrink friend of his to try to put her back together. She's willing, because she is rather addicted to psychotherapy:

    Now she had found a story, and she put it forward, presented it to be heard, a framed, made story, as if the only and final result of all that happened was to enable story to be told ... She was the audience for this telling as well. Hers was not simply the active force, recalling. She was also the receiver, receiving what memory allocated. Now this, now that.

There's a heap of psychological moseying about in this novel. Lorle goes to the library and reads up on Felix Deutsch, Paul Schilder, Alexander Lowen, Wilhelm Reich. She also looks up Freud on transference and countertransference and discovers that if the psychotherapist sleeps with the patient "such a relationship would be a complete disaster for the treatment, the patient could never be cured thereafter." This leaves her, understandably, nervous. It also builds a little tension into the story, especially when she demands that Edmond pay for her new therapist. Things heat up when both patient and doctor start coming unglued.

It's actually an interesting case study, and could move this one into being a hot novel: what do you do when your therapist breaks all the taboos, shacks up with you, then turns chilly, tells you to kiss off? We are prepared for some high-level charges and countercharges and perhaps some violence and even more madness than we already have.

But the author lets the train run off the track. Lorle finds out her ex-husband's insurance will pay for Shrink #2 after all, and then Edmond up and kills himself. Vern --- a stolid mechanic from the gold country (he'd worked on Edmond's MG) --- comes down from the mountains and does the Esalen thing, hot-tubs, confession and sex; then he looks up Lorle.

He spirits her off to Mexico City so they can do the beast with two backs in a more exotic setting. They can't get enough of it, nor can they get enough of swyving (and needling) each other. It got to where I wanted to throw both of them and the book out the window --- nagging (and excessive dorking) always did irritate me --- and call up another volume out of the stack under my bed, that 600 page volume Commerce, Culture, and Liberty that I've been meaning to read for so long.

It's strange, because Ms. Dillon did have something going when it was just Edmond and his neurotic, mesmerized bed-partner. Maybe the author had an anxiety attack. Maybe her characters started talking to her in her sleep, demanding they be allowed to go where they damn well wanted. Lorle and Vern end up driving around Mexico and bitching at each other endlessly and the poor reader feels left out of it.

Finally he leaves. She catches herself thinking that she has had "enough of resentments, transferences, leftover transferences." No more self-analysis, textbook lessons on psychotherapy, getting plowed by shrinks, and fretting (and picking at poor old Vern). As my old Mammy would say ... thank god for small favors.

--- Leslie Peters, MFCC


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