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Lighting Out

Lighting Out. Daniel Duane. Greywolf Press, St. Paul, Minn. 1994. Softcover. 292 pages. $12.00.

Rarely is a book reviewed in this Journal with such literary heavyweights on its back cover as A.R. Ammons (whose Garbage is arguably the best long poem by a living American) and Elizabeth Allende, the Chilean novelist and author of the fantasy-realism classic House of Spirits. Daniel Duane’s memoir of his post-college years richly deserves these blurbs.

Lighting Out is a modernist rite of passage, a displaced youth’s initiation into the absurd. And the absurd is where climbing fits in naturally. Duane’s climbing apprenticeship, which takes up about a third of the book, treads an awfully fine line between doing it and standing back from it, between enthusiasm and finding the sport ridiculous. Quite a contrast to his father and mentor, a perpetually psyched rock jock.

Duane’s literary persona seems to drift into situations without strong motives, then to wake up in the midst of action and look about, sharply awake, hoping for meaningful clues to the human condition. What he finds, usually, is the droll and the weird. This is particularly noticeable in the relationship with his girlfriend, an ingenue of the Berkeley Big Sur counterculture. As her fanaticism and pagan practices become more bizarre (in counterpoint to his maturation as a climber) Duane strives to make no judgements. A man with an obsession for The Nose, to his mind, better not knock Kyla’s circle of Earth Mothers in Training.

I’d recommend Lighting Out to anyone who had ever tried to write about climbing. Its strength is that it is scoured free of romantic taint and strives for that “great simplicity that is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort, or both,” as T.S. Eliot observed. It succeeds because of the apparent modesty of its aspirations, its steady honesty of observation, and ear for dialogue. And by the end, the book won me over with its sincerity, the taking pleasure in small things, his familiarity with disappointment and laconic humor. Duane recognizes that the core of an adventure may not, when you finally get there, be an event worth writing about. Read, for instance, a chapter on doing the Washington Column, where the most memorable action is his partner’s tale about wandering stoned for days in the desert eating only pot brownies, which is told as the pair are fumbling down a complicated descent.

Quite fittingly, after two aborted attempts on the Nose, the book ends with the loss of Kyla (an inevitability) and the author more or less where he began, at loose ends: not much wiser but ready to skew the next piece of absurdity to float into view.

John Thackray