The Oddity
By V.B. Price
University of New Mexico Press
362 pages, $39.95

Review by Roy Durfee

V.B. Price's aptly titled novel is a paean to post-World War II Albuquerque, a personal passage from innocence to righteousness for his male protagonist and a forum for the carefully articulated vision of his female protagonist. All of this then wrapped in a pastiche of journal and diary entries and passages from an unfinished novel, themselves packaged inside the novel of yet another writer, whose voice is the penultimate voice of the book.

The conscience of the book is Hana Nicholas, a protofeminist in Joseph McCarthyite America, queen of her own acreage in Albuquerque's North Valley and prey to the self-righteous concerns of her small circle of friends. Lowell Briscoe is a young boy who falls under her spell for a brief period at the end of the '40s in Los Griegos and lives to be the victim of a mob beating in the Rodney King riots of the '90s in Los Angeles.

To Hana, New Mexico "seemed isolated from the rest of the world, a Shangri-la, flourishing but forgotten, impenetrable and safe as the comfort of a warm bed with heavy covers." Her annual children's Christmas play for 1948 involves Odysseus the Kachina, played by young Lowell, "navigat(ing) by the Christmas star, leading other Kachinas to find their way home, across the Wild Ocean of Desert and through the Dark Woods of Atomic Bomb Mountain," returning after Christmas Eve Mass to the mountain to "convince the Atomic Cyclopes to abandon their bombs, and join the Kachinas in a festival of light and rebirth."

A reclusive intellectual whose mental life is inhabited by visions of the Inquisition-era martyr Giordano Bruno, the assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, Greek philosophers and Muses and the ceremonial life of New Mexico's pueblos, Hana eventually comes up against the belief of her best friend that "people are required to be predictable, otherwise the world falls apart."

From that thought onward, the tale becomes Kafkaesque on two tracks: that of Hana caught in the web of perhaps well-meaning but conspiratorial friends and that of Lowell, trapped in the legal and media systems of Los Angeles. In Lowell's effort to reconcile himself to his past and to discover its meaning, The Oddity at times reads like a detective novel in which an answer is sought. In Hana's journals, it reads like a screenplay by John Sayles, in which characters speak entire philosophies and critiques of living. Price, to be sure, is a serious fellow, and his concern about lost American values is as clear here as it is in his weekly column in the Albuquerque Tribune.

While art and didacticism are often ill-matched, the real oddity here might be in how well Price has succeeded in communicating his characters' concerns while telling a pair of compelling stories. Along the way, he gives us W.H. Auden's line, "Alienation from the collective is always a duty," along with the book's final lines from Hana's journal: "I cannot forget that conflict and difference are our saving grace and our greatest disappointment: they are the seeds of the possible. I tell myself over and over every day to rest in the possible, to rest and be calm, to rest and sail, buoyant and trusting, sailing the gorgeous dangers of time."

Price, the public urbanist, is all-too-familiar with the gorgeous dangers of time, as in his subtle tribute to Albuquerque's lost Alvarado Hotel, recreated in the chapter "Supper at the Alvarado, Fall 1948": "Even though Lowell had nothing to compare it to, he knew the Alvarado was a regal place and that there was some honor in being its habitue." One could say something similar about this book.

Roy Durfee lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico USA.

Copyright 2004 Santa Fe New Mexican remote