By The Wayside by Jeff Putnam

Baskerville Press 1992 344 pp. 19.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Those of you in need of an antidote to the Yuppification of the known universe, of the complacent, self-regarding generation that rose on the tenets of freedom, self-expression, sex and intoxication, and just as quickly forgot them, need look no further than Jeff Putnam's By The Wayside. Like his spiritual forebear, Jack Keroac, the protagonist, Gordon Bancroft, tells us that "Wine, women and hatred of authority is all anyone needs in this life!"

Bancroft, an aspiring operatic baritone in his late thirties, finds himself a busker in urban Barcelona with a clear understanding of his role. "We buskers are too strong of body and will to be beggars, of course, but in one sense we're all hustlers ..."

In striving to support his girlfriend and their newborn child, Bancroft undergoes a crisis, one simultaneously muted and made more alarming through the first-person narration. While others, including his family, have unreflectively categorized him only to ignore him, he remains ... a mystery to no one but myself."

The method toward solving the mystery is the traditional one: "To be able to sin at all seemed such a blessing." Bancroft, soon abandoned by his girlfriend and daughter, plunges, as it were, into a variety of relationships with prostitutes and lesbians (drawing the line at lawyers) and the all sexual permissiveness and variety that the Barcelona callejeros (street people) have to offer. Throughout his alcohol-soaked adventures, he holds on to his dream of an opera career achieved without comprimises.

While the rest of his generation has been lost to the questionable virtue of blush wine, drinking holds promise for Bancroft: "I drink to be interested, that's it. After a couple of beers I feel like I've been nailed to my stool. I have weight again. Other people have things I want, especially the women. I want to touch them all, touch everything. Things that aren't going anywhere have an inner life. Things in motion bring in other things. Poetry, music is everywhere. The world is a joyous flow and I'm in and out of it like a fish . . "

Despite the alcoholic and genital explorations that comprise much of Putnam's novel, it remains an inquiry into the possiblity of belonging, in particular, in belonging to a family, but one founded not on mutual ownership, but on mutual love, "delight in the freedom of another." Bancroft wants to only connect, but to do so with everyone's integrity intact. He wants to"... shatter the complacency of all the bozos like my father who'd made up their minds about good and bad, and what was to be done and couldn't be, on the basis of some crap they'd heard or read, starting with their parents, back when people were running around in long underwear and sex really stank."

On that narrow shelf, along with James M. Cain's Serenade, of novels featuring opera singer protagonists, By the Wayside (which has the clear ring of fictionalized autobiography), testifies to the purity of vision unscathed by decades of Reagan and Bush. Who but Putnam continues to observe that "A man in socks can stop an orgy cold?"