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Mo Better Blues

[whitespace] Daniel Duane
Timothy Archibald

Go Tell It on the Mountain: Daniel Duane manages to make crunchy hippies seem interesting.

Daniel Duane's California dreaming

By Michelle Goldberg

Having little patience for extreme sports, hippies or nature writing, I was expecting to hate Daniel Duane's Looking for Mo (Farrar Straus & Giroux; 224 pp.; $24), a novel about a boy and his best friend scaling Yosemite's El Capitan. But despite my rather closed mind, the gorgeous writing, by turns awed and sweetly self-deprecating, captivated me.

The book is about far more than rock climbing. It's about the fascinated envy that people have for their most free-spirited friends and the fallout of appropriating their stories. Looking for Mo follows Ray, a frustrated writer who obsesses over his failure to climb El Capitan and who almost worships his insanely adventurous and innocent best friend, Mo. In fact, he admires him so much that he puts Mo's anecdotes into a book, which Mo finds almost unforgivable.

Duane captures a California filled with crazy encampments--a thinly veiled Survival Research Laboratories warehouse, old buses full of Deadheads, the climbers' tent city at Yosemite. And he does it without condescension or parody--amazingly, he writes a scene of middle-class kids tripping at a Dead show that is actually compelling (you have to read it to believe it).

Looking for Mo is Duane's third book and his first novel. He published his first book, Lighting Out: A Vision of California and the Mountains, in 1994. That book was also about rock climbing and resulted in the severed friendships that inspired Looking for Mo. (His last book was Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast.)

"After my first book came out, there was a fallout with my friendships, so I was trying to fictionalize that experience," Duane says. "I didn't really come to a conclusion. I was trying to write about this one friendship. Mo's a conglomerate of a couple different people, but he embodies a particular spirit in a group of friendships that I had. Part of what the book is about is when I just couldn't go their path anymore. As much as I sort of envied them and wanted to be as wild and careless and idealistic as they were, I'm just not that guy."

Duane lives in the Outer Sunset. When I called for an interview, he suggested we meet at Java Beach, a cafe two blocks from his house that seemed to be right out of his novel, filled as it was with vaguely loony, lonely old men and tattered hippie-punks. Thirty years old, with blond hair and wire-rim glasses, Duane looks like a slightly scruffy J. Crew model, the very picture of a laid-back San Francisco stoner.

But as with his book, my prejudices had the better of me. So I asked,

Have you studied creative writing? Do you have an MFA? "No," he said, and then, a few beats later, "but I do have a Ph.D. in literature."

Which explains a lot. The reason the relatively clichéd subject matter sings in Duane's book is because of a real intelligence and elegance in the writing. Duane wrote his thesis at UC-Santa Cruz on early American writers' views of the West, and a sense of California mythology shines through in the novel.

"I told how we'd imagined that, for all our lives, we would only want ever more barren, ever less populated places--perfect worlds in which boys would live in trucks on lonesome roads, eat lightly, and move well over hard granite and never fall," Duane writes. The epigraph to Looking for Mo, is a quote from James Salter: "In California there are no ideas. On the other hand, we may see God."

"It's what the West is built on," Duane says. "Those are the sorts of myths and notions that underlie the Western notion of manhood in a very subtle cultural way. The great Western male identity ..."

He pauses, then adds, "God, this is troublesome terrain to get into--this is why it's a good thing I'm not in graduate school anymore, so I can actually talk about this stuff. For me, anyway, the great male figures, not ones that I chose but that you just sort of inherit, are people like John Muir or Jack Kerouac or Gary Snyder or [Allen] Ginsberg. I think the Beats particularly. If you're a young man in San Francisco with any kind of real artistic or adventurous impulse, the Beats just loom on your horizon, even if you've never even read them. You just sort of have this idea that what it means to be an artist is to hop freight trains through the great Northwest and all that."

Part of the Beat idea was that you could find truth by pushing boundaries farther and farther, but that notion has been somewhat discredited--Kerouac, after all, died a miserable drunk. "On these adventures, I was often thinking if I could just get up El Cap, then I'll be fine," Duane says. "Then everything will be okay, and I can get on with being a normal grownup. I think a lot of people feel that way, and maybe it even works--you just feel like you need to really go to the bottom of yourself once and really see what's in there. But on the other hand, it's not true, because maybe the more common lesson is you pull off the great thing you wanted to do, and you realize you're still just yourself."

Still, says Duane, "I think it's important never to forget how marvelously fun these things are, and it's important not to undermine that--not just to reduce them to obstacles or goals. Because these things really are beautiful experiences--and dramatic and wild. And part of it is just about a lust for life, a young person's lust for great adventure, Western dramas that happen outdoors in great mountains with big trees. You can have great dramas and great adventures."

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From the July 27-Aug. 9, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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