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Looking for Mo

Looking for Mo. Daniel Duane. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1998. 230 pages. $22.00.

Looking for Mo is Duane’s first book of fiction and his second book in which climbing is the central action. His earlier book, Lighting Out, was an autobiographical memoir in which the person telling the story (ostensibly Duane himself) tries to balance climbing in Yosemite and the Sierra with his relationship with his girlfriend, a beautiful, troubled, new-age free spirit. Mo features a first person narrator who is in essence indistinguishable from the narrator of Lighting Out, both in his voice and interests. In fact, Mo reads very much like a sequel: it is mo’ of the same, and even relies for one of its conflicts on an earlier book written by the narrator, a book very much like Lighting Out (but not exactly like LO, because that book is nonfiction and the earlier book referred to in this new book is fiction).

One of the funniest characters in LO is Aaron, who, in Duane’s voice, tells hilarious stories, among the most memorable in LO, of being stoned in the desert and searching the wilderness for his dream woman. In Mo, Aaron has been changed to Mo, and Mo is upset with our new narrator for stealing his best stories and putting them down into a book form. Mo is also a very good climber (just like Aaron). The other sub-plot of Mo is the possibility of the narrator falling in love and developing a relationship with the lovely Fiona, but despite being enamored of her, he ignores her. Why? Climbing.

From page one, Mo’s narrator is obsessed with doing an El Cap big wall. One of the charms of Lighting Out is that both times the characters try the Nose, they bail, mostly out of simple intimidation. In this new story the narrator and Aaron/Mo try the Salathé. So if you’ve read the first book and are going on to the second, you can’t help but read them as connected, and you can’t help wondering how these guys went from two failures on the Nose to the Salathé, and you’re wondering, is this why he calls it fiction? The book is about finishing unfinished business, but the reader can’t really know whether the unfinished business is completing the story started in LO or completing the climbing in “real” life. Duane calls this story fiction— made-up—and yet if we’ve read the first, we “know” that some of it isn’t made-up. Does he want it both ways? (Who doesn’t?) What should it matter to readers?

The climb of the Salathé is the climax of the book and occupies close to a quarter of the whole (and it’s not a very long novel) 230 rather small pages.The question for the reader is, how well does the writer succeed with his portrayal of the Salathé? For accuracy you might ask someone who’s done the route (not me); but clearly Duane is aiming for more than a literal accuracy; he’s trying to get the essence of the thing. As a piece of literary fiction, the portrayal is excellent.

Anyone writing about a climb—be it a climb they’ve done or one they imagine having done—faces the same problems outlined many years ago in David Roberts’ “Slouching Toward Everest: a Critique of Expedition Narratives”(Ascent, 1980). A climb is a nearly linear ritual—a series of repeated problem-solving activities. Sure, there are variables, but they’re the same variables: your partners, the weather, conditions of the route, and more recently, others on the route. The problem for the writer is how to keep any single account from sounding like any other account. Duane does quite well on this score: the tensions between the partners, the personal significance of doing the route for the narrator. In short, the human history that Duane creates on the page all work effectively with the familiar features of the route and nature of the climbing itself (these latter already known to readers who climb and know something of climbing in Yosemite). Even the thunderstorm that (surprise!) traps them in a soaking bivy for days works well because we know what the climb means to these characters, know that they are merely human and not possessed of god-like strength, skills, and courage.

While the climb itself receives a fully realized treatment, other aspects of the story, which seem to exist only as hurdles to be overcome before the climbing can begin, are in fact treated only briefly despite the great proportion of textual space they occupy. Romance and friendship are given short shrift, but I wasn’t always sure if they were sacrificed intentionally to the climbing or unintentionally by the writing. A friend of the narrator’s marries—the road not taken by the narrator. There’s a Grateful Dead concert and a wild scene of performance art, both of which are interesting enough and help to fix the historical Californian moment, but neither of which seem particularly necessary to the real story (the climb).

I happened to read Mo during the only summer of the last seven or eight years that I didn’t climb a single day in Yosemite, and in the shadow of Duane’s prose I found myself dreaming of the Valley for weeks. His narrator’s obsession is one we understand. Duane dedicates his novel to four people, “partners in an incomparable dream.” The dedication, coupled with the climb the book describes, are a good reminder that for those who choose it: climbing is the incomparable dream.

David Stevenson