Arts Southern discomfort 

The giants of Texas politics are gone, but their memory malingers on in Waterloo

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The word "Austin" appears only once in Waterloo, concluding an author's note at the back of the book: "And thanks to all the good people of Austin, Texas." Otherwise, Karen Olsson's wistfully mischievous first novel is set entirely in a place named Waterloo. The fictional town happens to be the seat of both the state legislature and the flagship campus of the state university. "Known for its friendly, laid-back atmosphere and vibrant local music scene," Waterloo, we are told at the outset, is "a center of learning, a good town for live entertainment, and an incubator of laziness." Even without knowing that, before being renamed to honor Stephen F. Austin, the current Texas capital was in fact called Waterloo, anyone from this neck of the mesquite may savor the details of a shrewd roman á clef. Yet, beyond its veiled allusions to familiar people, places, and events, Waterloo is that rare accomplishment, a provincial fiction that finds the universe in a grain of Texas silt.

A confirmation of Proust's quip that the only true paradise is paradise lost, Waterloo is a meditation on human failure and decline. The novel opens with the death of bibulous and garrulous old Will Sabert, known to some as the Last Southern Liberal Gentleman. A defeated Congressman whose glory peaked in 1952 when he walked out of the state convention to protest its endorsement of Eisenhower over Stevenson, Sabert seems the embodiment of principle over expedience, at least to slacker Nick Lasseter, whose very name oozes lassitude. A college dropout, burnt-out musician, and general underachiever, 32-year-old Nick is a political columnist for an alternative weekly called the Waterloo Weekly (read Austin Chronicle) who develops "obituarist's block" when assigned to write about Sabert. Nick's raffish uncle, Kenneth "Bones" Lasseter, "a vortex of dissipation and waste," once served and then betrayed the Congressman. Long in tooth and short on scruple, he now prowls the capitol as a lobbyist. Though Nick thinks of himself as an intrepid debunker, his paper is run by a new editor who disdains investigative journalism and favors "service" articles about where to shop and dine.

Disappointment connects characters to one another in this merry tale of woe. Compared with Nick's father, a distinguished judge in New Jersey, Nick and Bones are both bunglers. Andrea Carter, a reporter for the daily Waterloo Standard-American (American-Statesman?), feels unworthy of her late father, who desegregated the libraries of Waterloo. When Nick, despondent over the loss of his flighty girlfriend, Liza, to a muffin magnate named Miles, takes up with Andrea, the relationship pleases neither completely. And, after realizing that a wealthy developer was manipulating her in order to legalize his plunder of a black neighborhood, state legislator Beverly Flintic ends up failing her conservative backers, her family, and herself.

Olsson, a former editor of The Texas Observer who now writes for Texas Monthly, knows her material and how to sculpt a sentence. You can count on her prose for a pungent simile, as when she describes the inside of Bones' garage as looking "like a refugee camp for lawn furniture" or Nick's friendship with a musician named Roger as being "like an old cactus that neither grew nor shrank." Except for a telegenic numbskull named Mark Hardaway who is running for governor, she approaches her characters with enough sympathy even for their infirmities to keep them from being mere caricatures. And if Hardaway seems little more than a narcissistic dolt, so do his real-life prototypes.

Waterloo

By Karen Olsson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$24, 320 pages
ISBN: 0374286264

As played in Waterloo, politics is a contact sport, and Bones, a cynical operator, has more contacts than most. Though flashbacks make it clear that the business of democracy in his state has always been tarnished by trimming and duplicity, Bones mourns a vanished era of good feelings. "Problem is," he tells his nephew, "there aren't enough drunks left in politics. There's no more spirit of conviviality. Nowadays everyone's screeching at each other all the time."

Olsson makes sprightly music of that screech. On the final page, Nick, alone, attempts a nighttime view of all of Waterloo, the community of slackers and muddlers that is the novel's true protagonist. Napoleon is mentioned nowhere in Waterloo, nor is the Belgian site synonymous with defeat. Instead, the laid-back Southwest metropolis that is evoked in the opening and closing paragraphs and gives this book its name becomes the perfect setting for a melancholy, jolly take on human imperfection


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