THE PROBLEM with Paulette Jiles's new book, Cousins, is that we get too much of the cousins and not enough Jiles.
Two years ago, the poet, novelist, and radio dramaturge set off in search of her cousins scattered across the southern and midwestern United States. Jiles began by persuading her kin to spin family stories into a tape recorder. In particular, Jiles wanted to hear about her father, a remote figure who returned from the Second World War permanently changed. "He put a whistle on the tea kettle so it would go off like a bosun's pipe," writes Jiles, "and he would yell, 'All hands on deck."'
A few of the cousins tell hilarious anecdotes; too many, however, skate over the same family event at warp speed, repeating commonplace observations and digressing, digressing. A few of die cousins -along with Jiles's driver, lover, and secretary, Jim Johnson - have done time in Vietnam. The grim memories of that time and place are riveting. Unfortunately, mediocre interviews tied together with short narrative transitions entirely take over the second half of this 368-page book.
In the first half, however, Jiles the marvellous poet and prose stylist is front and centre. She adopts the persona of fabulist, half-baked poet, a former flower child off on a crazy quest. After a few days of flirting, Jiles hooks up with Johnson, her animus: he's Texan, a former rancher and soldier -and he reads Dickens.
It was meeting him that led me to a seven-month journey across the United States, a jail in Texas, detective work in the Florida Keys, a midnight sail on an airboat in the Everglades, a stolen pick-up in Tampa...
The sparks that fly between these aging warriors of the '60s rekindle the larger and still unresolved debates of that period. The story of their road romance is the best one in this book crammed full of stories.
While Jiles the poet reigns, we have no complaints. Their trip through the Everglades goes like this:
We streak out in a column of flying noise on the flat back; the constellations glitter overhead and reflect; we are rushing down a carpet of stars .... My hair is flying straight back off my head .... Upstairs are the stars and all their legends .... We sit at the edge of the last place, looking out over the long stretch of black, secret water.
In earlier works such as The James Poems or "My Grandmother's Quilt," Jiles mined the rich folklore of the American South. Here she drives a time line through her home town of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and attempts to evoke a family lineage that reaches back to before the Civil War. But the result over the long haul - this is certainly Jiles's longest, most ambitious book - is uneven and at times confusing.
Jiles is a major artist who takes risks with each work, including this one. But her insistence on relentlessly following the book's outline and interviewing almost all her cousins ends up scuttling the enterprise. If Jiles had dumped half a dozen interviews and more deeply explored the resonant stories of Vietnam and her growing love for Johnson, we would have had a much better book.