Review

Halcyon Daze
by Palmer Owyoung (Namibia 1993–95)
Village Market Press
2003
234 pages
$11.95

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

WRITER’S DIGEST HAS BEEN RUNNING what I consider a pretty effective set of ads. On the inside cover of recent issues of the magazine are portraits of famous writers — Walt Whitman, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf — along with the word “Loser” stamped over their heads like a scarlet letter. These ads, shameless as all ads are in their blatant attempt to make a sale, nevertheless pick successfully at a literary sore point: self-publishing. The spirit of today’s age in book publishing is that larger but fewer conglomerates rule the marketplace through their accumulation of greater resources, greater networks and more money. Writers who can’t or won’t suck up to some arbitrary corporate view on the direction that reading should take, either stew bitterly with unpublished books or courageously gear up for the world of self-publishing, utilizing whatever resources are at their disposal and believing in the conviction of their vision. (The above-named ads promote a self-publishing company that offers the vague notion that you, too, can be like the bespectacled and eccentric James Joyce.)
     The latest in an ever increasing number of independently published novels is the accessible Halcyon Daze, penned by Palmer Owyoung. The book title plays cleverly on the homonym “daze”/”days”, which pinpoints the main thrust of the story, which is the confusion that preys upon Kalani, a Hawaiian/Asian/American girl from small-town Kansas who, on the verge of turning 30 years old, doubts whether the life she has lived so far is the one she really wants.
     The novel opens with her standing at the altar, about to affirm marriage vows with her fiancée. But as Kalani considers her long-time dream of living a complex life outside a perfectly packaged small town and of becoming a writer, she dumps her husband-to-be, packs a bag, hops in a car and heads west. This at first seems like a bad cliché except that, somehow, the scene works, acting as a counterpoint to all that follows. Kalani must display enough courage to throw away her past and launch full-scale into a new world where she has no friends, and all she knows is down the long highway behind her.
   A Navajo woman whom she meets at a roadside stop acts as her spiritual guide, providing Kalani a peyote drink that makes her experience visions and sensuous hallucinations that put her in touch with dreams of a happy life and urge her west toward California.
     
She moves into a group house in San Francisco, where most of her roommates/ friends are approximately her age and also experiencing similar doubts about their identities. Monet is a psychologist who is also a strip-club dancer, Claire, a promiscuous bisexual who hates working at Starbucks; Michael, a cross-dressing EMT; and landlord Ely, a computer genius who became a multi-millionaire during the dot-com years and spends most of his time at home getting high.
     The story is interesting and fun to read, but Owyoung, in attempting to frame an historical era on the West Coast, often lets conversations between characters slip into forced zeitgeist-speak, with words spoken not between individuals but between competing fields of thoughts. Often the dialogue goes on for several pages without a break. It’s hard to develop characters that represent themselves rather than the spirit of the age in liberal San Francisco. Fortunately Kalani is saved from this fate via memories of her painful past, which include a weak, alcoholic father who abandoned the family, a melancholy mother who never recovered from that loss and a brother with a more exciting youth.
     She immerses herself in San Francisco, a city that flies in the face of all the boundaries she knew in Kansas. Sexually, artistically and professionally her sense of confusion deepens, but she is excited by the prospect that this must be part of the process of discovering an identity. The story climaxes at the Burning Man celebration in the remote desert of Nevada, which Kalani describes as a modern-day Woodstock. She and her friends arrive in a Winnebago, set up camp along with thousands of others and over the following week dissolve in a carnal world of drugs, and artistic and sexual expression that leaves her exhausted but fulfilled. In the novel’s final pages, Kalani returns home to say goodbye to her mother who is dying of cancer. When her mother asks if she is happy out west, Kalani says yes. She never begins writing, which was what originally prompted her to leave Kansas, but one senses that her experience at Burning Man has represented a catharsis and that she may soon begin writing, say, a book similar to Halcyon Daze.
     Today’s market-driven books typically lean toward topics surrounding terrorism, Muslim fundamentalism, and the inanities of blind patriotism, which reflect our broader era of post-September 11 America. But if we’re to continue living our personal lives as well, we must continue to celebrate the vicissitudes of the individual, such as the one documented in Halcyon Daze. No, the novel isn’t perfect and Owyoung isn’t James Joyce (at least not yet). Kalani’s descriptions of her thoughts and feelings sometimes interrupt the narrative, and the book should cut some dialogue and offer readers more generous images of landscapes and places. But despite astronomical sales figures, even widely acclaimed saccharine-coated best-sellers have their issues. The earnest spirit of Owyoung’s delivery of a message about American life — go hither, have fun and chase thy dreams! — plays steadily throughout his debut, self-published novel. And for those who can find it, in stores or on-line (go to Amazon.com, it’s there), Halcyon Daze is worthwhile reading.

Joe Kovacs has written for WorldView Magazine and LiteraryTraveler.com. He is currently researching his second novel.