From Bluegrass To Sagebrush

Lana Witt's Sophomore Effort Is A Light But Entertaining Summer Read.

The Heart of a Thirsty Woman, by Lana Witt (Scribner). Cloth, $23.

IT'S ALL IN the cover illustration: woman in denim shirt and Levi's on a sage-covered desert floor gazes at brilliant sunset reflected off mountains. A saguaro occupies the midground; several others spike up in the back. Her hands are on her hips, shirt cuffs rolled up. She's got a high, tight butt and made-for-walkin' boots. The picture's laid over a road map that's pretty familiar in our part of the country: Tohono O'odham reservation, Red Rock, Green Valley, Apache Jct. But hey, if you want to read about a woman breaking out of convention and searching for identity, you might as well do it in familiar surroundings.

The Heart of a Thirsty Woman is the second novel by Lana Witt, author of Slow Dancing on Dinosaur Bones. Reared in Kentucky and residing now in San Diego, she's clearly spent enough time in Southern Arizona to develop a feel for the area.

The novel opens in a small town in Kentucky, 1976. Central character Josie Tolliver, 27, has been contemplating A Separate Reality. With a fair amount of time on her hands -- no kids, no job, no vegetable garden and no intention of acquiring any of those -- she reads a lot, speaks in Shakespearean prose ("O heat, dry up my brains!äI'm not Josie, I'm Laertes"), and thinks about out-of-body experiences and the Old Yaqui teachings of Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan (this is the 1970s, remember). He's the separate realities guru, and Josie's been sensing him lurking in her peripheral vision.

Josie's husband Clarence is not amused. Clarence has a business. He owns the TV repair shop in town and he thinks Josie should knit afghans and feed wild birds from a mail-order bird mansion, like his mom. Clarence has a dream, though; he aspires to become Clarence, The Satellite Man of Pick, Kentucky. Josie also has a dream: she aspires to have out-of-body experiences out West -- specifically Sage (read Oracle), Arizona, where she and her sister ran free back in '59, when Daddy did a stint at the copper mines. She'd like to pack up Clarence and her daddy Brewster and try the opportunities out where the mountains are severe and the sunsets sweet.

When Clarence won't move, Josie, desperate for some activity, places an anonymous ad in the local paper for a group to meet, explore and celebrate Don Juan. A slew of bored housewives show up, including good Baptists and former high-school cheerleaders. When they discover this Juan promotes spiritual rather than kinky enlightenment, they storm off. They declare Josie crazy. A scandal ensues. Business dries up; both Josie and Clarence are ostracized. The potential for successful satellite TV proliferation evaporates, and only Josie's dream remains. So the Tollivers head for Arizona.

By placing Josie and Clarence in a new and remote setting, Witt provides them the chance to test their individual and marital mettle, which is perhaps already a bit shaky. She complicates the situation by folding in extended-family problems. Josie's faced with the dilemma of what to do with her father, Brewster Clay, mentally sharp but vexed with arthritis and caught in the loop of rehashing The Old Days. Then she suddenly needs to search for her wild sister Cheyenne, who took off at age 15 and seems to have materialized at the edge of this reality. Throw in a handsome cowboy or two, a pair of identical twin bar owners who used to do a Celtic-harp and guitar strip act, an egocentric community college drama instructor, a sensible woman from Wisconsin who cooks and probably likes bird feeders, and you have the makings of a serious mettle test. That's without even mentioning the dog that eats itself.

This is not a badly presented genre book. Witt writes with a comfortable, sometimes ironic Southern ease (not on a par with, but resonant of Barbara Kingsolver -- another writer with a Kentucky-Arizona connection), and gives us fresh, concrete metaphors: Brewster's "frail arms and legs dangle from his body like dishrags"; and "the Arizona sun doesn't dilly-dally around. It pops up every morning like an unruly penis -- headstrong, erect, and full of itself."

Although Josie clearly needs to discover who she is, Witt avoids the trap of oversentimentalizing her experience. You don't necessarily like or approve of Josie throughout the book, which heightens the reading experience. Clarence is a lump of a TV repairman who desires not much beyond a relationship with his remote and his dog, but he's not unsympathetically portrayed. He has one forgivable, passive-aggressive quality that represents him well: a seemingly inbred inability to drive faster than 40 miles an hour, regardless of the effect on the traffic behind. And Brewster is an endearing World War II vet who hasn't a mean word for anybody, and bumbles through life confounded by the motivations of the women around him. Witt has done well by her principal characters.

The narrator's point of view and writer's choice of verb tense are sketchy, though. Witt's chosen to write in the present tense, which makes for some awkward segues -- not a criminal offense, but it calls attention to itself. But her use of point-of-view is about as capricious as old Don Juan -- flitting around from one character's head to another's, from Josie's to Clarence's to Brewster's, and even to the postmaster Myrtle's. This is more out-of-body privilege than this reader likes.

Thirsty Woman won't make any Great Books lists, but it's an entertaining summer read -- a natural Zonie read. By the way, did I mention the Tollivers also make it to San Diego? Clarence becomes a vegetarian and Josie bumps into a real Don Juanäslightly less oracular than Castaneda's sage.