H. L. Davis’s novel is getting frustrating, not because it is terrible, but because he nearly achieves escape velocity often enough to make it irritating that he keeps bailing back out to Earth. There is a good stretch, right in the middle of the novel, where Honey in the Horn makes what appears at first to be a significant turn. Having piled up a ridiculous plot, that’s overly reliant on investing me in the trials and tribulations of young romance between two characters whose relationship makes no sense to me, he simply cuts and runs—or rather, Clay Calvert does, and for a while the open road stretches before him. Freed of the conventions and conventional “misunderstandings” of a romance plot, he heads for wild country and meets some odd characters. The narrator starts to give a much deeper sense of setting, and develops situations in such a way that the story starts to look different—it even redeems some earlier passages that I’d previously paid little attention to. I feel like I’m finally setting out on something worthwhile—a picaresque novel in the tradition of Candide (without the satire) and Huckleberry Finn (but almost entirely without the humor). Nowhere near as good as either of those novels, but a classic plot structure that I could see Davis getting some mileage out of as a way to give us his Oregon travelogue. I relax just a little, start to enjoy some of the better moments as they come along, and am optimistic for the first time in the novel.
Which was a terrible idea, since about nine pages later the whole creaking plot comes careening back around the road on the wheels of a battered old wagon, and Davis commits himself to the hackneyed crapola he’d managed to get loose of, as though Ishmael had swum back to the Pequod to lash himself to the mast as it was going down, as though Aeneas had run back into burning Troy leaving Anchises and Ascanius to fend for themselves. Utterly baffling.
I guess I’m overstating the case—at its worst, the novel isn’t a total train-wreck. It’s Laughing Boy without much of anything in the way of psychological depth; it’s something like Lamb In His Bosom but without the corny dialects and the Jerry Springer overtones (and, therefore, better than that novel). If you’re looking for a very poor man’s Mark Twain, H. L. Davis might fit the bill, but to even set them next to each other implies a wit and a showman’s talent in Davis that he really doesn’t exhibit. I can tell that he’s trying to offer some wry commentary on the lives of rural Oregonians, but the commentary is so often ham-handed that it doesn’t strike me as very insightful. There’s something enjoyable about the constant change of scenery (we’ve made it west to the rugged Pacific coast now), but I can’t see that it’s a book worth reading for that alone.
It’s hard to pinpoint how I feel about the book—as is probably evident by the hemming and hawing I do throughout this post. At its best, I feel like I’m getting into something really readable and maybe a bit clever, and at its worst, I can’t believe I have to read another 200 pages of this tripe. I think it spends a bit more time hovering at the low end of the spectrum, but I can’t tell if that’s true, or if I’ve just read way too many of these “troubled young lovers” Pulitzer winners (most of which are either pretty bad, or else good in spite of that subplot) and it’s making me more impatient than most folks would be. Certainly there are a lot of really popular romantic comedies out there with scripts I think are terribly lazy and unoriginal. It could be I’m not reading this right. All I can do now is try and make some headway.