Give Me a Home Where the Ranchers, Poets and Hippies Roam

SUN HOUSE, by David James Duncan

At least give David James Duncan credit for an eclectic and well-nourished sensibility: Not every writer would quote Walt Whitman and Fran Lebowitz in consecutive sentences. His ambitious new novel, “Sun House,” takes its title from an imagined nomadic tribe’s name for Earth, but Duncan is surely alluding to the real-life Delta bluesman Son House, whom one of the characters recalls seeing in performance.

In this multiperspective epic about an “unintentional menagerie” of seekers and strivers in a Montana valley, Duncan name-checks John Cheever and Frank Zappa, Anne Carson and Glenda Jackson, Teilhard de Chardin and Jabba the Hutt, as well as Eastern and Western mystics from Gandhi to Catherine of Siena. Gary Snyder makes a cameo appearance, we hear Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris sing a song of Duncan’s invention, and a Border collie named Romeo plays the fool — literally — in a production of “King Lear.”

A similar high-low range of reference once enriched the wry and witty fictions of Donald Barthelme, but Duncan is bereft of Barthelme’s worldly sense of irony — for him, no bereavement at all. In a chapter titled “On Irony (Yeah, Right),” one character ventriloquizes what seems to be Duncan’s own aesthetic credo: “My bottom line in art, as in life, is to serve that irony-proof idiot the human heart.”

In “Sun House,” idiocy is theodicy, holy foolery transcends the “thinky” intellect, and “dumbsaint notebook” entries, scrawled by a student of Sanskrit, muse on “Unseen Unborn Guileless Perfection” and “a nothingness out of which compassion, empathy & generosity flow & flow.” Such “mind-stopping paradoxes” are Buddhism 101, but if given enough of them — and we’re given far more than enough of them — an agnostic might convert to heartless rationalism out of sheer annoyance.

Duncan’s previous novels, “The River Why” (1983) and “The Brothers K” (1992), were countercultural best sellers, traipsing among such subjects as fly-fishing, baseball, the Vietnam War and, inevitably, spiritual questing. “Sun House,” reportedly 16 years in the making, outbulks even the 645-page “Brothers K.” It devotes 350-odd pages to the back stories of its characters — a mountaineer, a “bardic” folk singer, an actor, a rock star, a restaurateur, assorted cowboys — and then 400 pages to the vegetable-growing, cattle-ranching, whiskey-drinking, “spiritually awake” community they establish in the valley of the fictional Elkmoon Mountains.

Their 4,000-acre refuge has been violated by an evil multinational corporation trying to build a luxury resort, the Brokeback Ranch & Country Club, whose name the company shamelessly steals from Annie Proulx. The Elkmooners, “with faith in natural regeneration and no desire to turn a quick profit,” pool their not-so-modest resources ($750K here, $400K there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money) to heal the valley and to market beef from animals slaughtered with love.

This eco-capitalist idyll gets a temporary setback when a young vegan communard sabotages the operation; some Elkmooners want her arrested, but they settle for subjecting her to a stern re-education, culminating in contrition and a penitential bite of steak. “I want to taste the body and the blood,” she tells them. This episode, a wildfire, a high-altitude rescue and a protracted death scene — featuring much communal humming and a too conveniently trapped-and-released hummingbird — fulfill the conventional novelistic requirement that things happen, though none of it quite amounts to a conventional plot.

Clearly Duncan — or his first-person narrator, known only as the Holy Goat, or “HG” — aspires to nothing so thinky. “The millionfold story” of the community “is untellable, and what a relief!” he writes. “Now I, the Holy Goat, can turn to whatever I’d most enjoy telling.” This is actually another character putting words in his mouth, but no matter: HG considers his characters his co-authors, and the whole novel is evidence of a let-’er-rip methodology.

An Elkmooner named Risa — the Sanskrit devotee and an improbable paragon of generosity, insight, esoteric scholarship and “gat-toothed” fetchingness — tells HG why the valley can’t be bounded by the classical, left-brained novelizing that created Mansfield Park. The community, she says, “is a tiny but estimable fraction of Vedic cosmic illusion, a toothless Zane Grey yarn undergoing feminist and metaphysical revision … a barrage of poetics ranging from free verse to cowboy doggerel to the godsongs of Maharashtran poet-saints … to late-medieval mystic chants to … the sometimes heart-rending chatter and songs of our own children. What single genre could cover all that?”

The ecstatic evocation of “godsongs” and “poet-saints” sounds like sentimental Beat Generation cant, but Risa’s question echoes the pronouncement of the unimpeachably mandarin Samuel Beckett: “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Always has been, come to think of it. Given that human experience is unimaginably vast, various and rambunctious, how does a writer plausibly reflect it, since, as Risa tells us, “there are realities infinitely greater than words or stories can contain”? Despite all the numinous jargon and narrative joyriding, Duncan is a thinky enough novelist to acknowledge the issue.

“Sun House” may beguile some armchair Montanans — perhaps some real ones as well — with its vision of a Big Sky under which cantankerous ranchers, poet-environmentalists and post-hippies with a “gonzo sense of mystical reality” could band together and resist the influx of both “earth-murdering” corporations and gentrifying “conquistadors with fly-fishy pretensions,” who drive “Subarus instead of F-150s.” But even the right-brained and the right-thinking may resist its preachiness, while agreeing — as who could not these days? — that “the global industrial juggernaut masquerading as ‘civilization’ has trapped us in a greed-driven apocalypse that scarcely a species, humanity included, will escape in the end.”

Duncan is a serial over-insister, especially when he tries to eff the ineffable: Characters continually find themselves “undone,” “overcome,” “stunned,” “gutted,” “slammed” and “moved beyond words.” True, some words are best moved beyond. When “the timeless wisdom of the East touches the brokenness of the West,” it can be hard to tell whether the writing is parodic or simply embarrassing: The Elkmooners’ funereal hum-fest sends what one character “guesses Risa’s fancy books would call ‘bliss’ shootin’ through him, an’ what in the name of Roy Rogers an’ Dale Evans is a stove-up ol’ wrangler like me doin’ even thinkin’ a word like bliss, let alone havin’ it flood his whole sorry carcass?

In the romance-novel sex scenes, though, there’s no question. An enraptured rancher is “swept into intertwinings and swoons he had never dreamed possible,” and the bardic folk singer flies “up into the mighty arms that caught and held her with such ease that, right there in the air, she offered all she owned.” The pillow talk soars still higher: “‘Even if we became a kind of Juliet and her Romeo; a Beatrice and her Benedick; a Eurydice and her Orpheus,’ the lips-voice murmured as it moved, name to name, from breast to breast, ‘the space that partakes of the power of both belongs to neither of us.’”

Too often, this earnestness — you might call it writy-ness — makes a wish-dream of renewal feel like an epic snoozer. At one point, Risa confronts a storekeeper with “an odd request”: three bags, no groceries. (She wants them for her late father’s ashes.) “Listen, hon,” the woman says as she hands them over. “In Montana that don’t qualify as one bit odd.” Outsiders might greet this novel with similar indulgence, but don’t bet the ranch on it.

David Gates’s books include “Jernigan” and “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me.”

SUN HOUSE | By David James Duncan | 774 pp. | Little, Brown & Company | $35

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