soda-springs-160Soda Springs: Love, Sex and Civil Rights
by Terry Marshall (Philippines 1965–68; Solomon Islands & Kiribati Co-CD 1977–80, PC Washington 1980–82)
Illustrations by Chuck Asay
Friesen Press
367 pages
Hardcover $30.39, paperback $19.13, Kindle $7.79
December 2010

Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)

IF A POLITICALLY-CORRECT, TWO-DIMENSIONAL  soap opera  featuring twenty-year-old virgins is what you’re looking for, then Terry Marshall’s novel Soda Springs: Love, Sex and Civil Rights is the book for you. One of the reasons I found the novel irksome — just as with another recent book by a former Peace Corps Country Director, J. Larry Brown and Peasants Come Last — is Marshall’s heavy-handed marketing of Soda Springs. Unlike most review books that come my way, Soda Springs was accompanied by a leaflet campaign touting the cumbersome tome as, “Soda Springs, a place you’ll never forget. A book you can’t put down. You’ll laugh. You’ll sigh. You’ll seethe with anger . . . . Try it — even for 5 minutes a day!” Is this a novel or a foot massager?

We all want to sell our books, and having been thoroughly blessed with press, it’s likely unfair of me to criticize Marshall’s pushy self-promotion, or Brown’s guerrilla tactics of surreptitiously placing a smallish billboard in the Library of Congress during the Peace Corps Writers luncheon at the 50th, as well as enlisting supporters to wrestle down RPCVs waiting in line at Headquarters with his postcard sales pitch. Having an overlarge ego is certainly a problem of mine; indeed, every writer must be so afflicted just to trot onto the crowded playing field of publishing, hoping to make a mark. But certainly there is a self-promotional Rubicon that must not be crossed, an awareness that we live in a world filled with writers, living and dead, whose work is better than ours, and who did not try to force their books on anyone like so many spoonfuls of castor oil. Bob Shacochis cautioned me some years ago, “Believe that the cream rises to the top.” Something curdles in the belly, then, when the work is not allowed to speak for itself. Is it the psychic make-up of former Country Directors that causes this slightly mad self-interestedness? Or is it just me?

Now to the book: at 360+ pages of small type, it’s well . . . over-large, and what’s worse, relentlessly odd. This is ostensibly a story about civil rights in a small Colorado farming community in 1963, the same year that Dr. King made his famous speech. The eponymous Soda Springs is divided among Anglo landowners and Mexican migrant workers. Rick Sanders — son of a respected farming family and a conscientious objector to Vietnam (somehow, in ‘63, presciently ahead of his time) — comes home from his studies at Cornell and his civil rights work in Alabama to help on the farm after his father breaks his leg in a tractor accident. The timing couldn’t be better for Rick, since in the book’s opening chapters, he’s sexually pursued by his college friend’s aging Southern Belle mother, Priscilla. In the first signs that Soda Springs is going to be guided by an infantile authorial weirdness, Priscilla not only leaps at Rick like a proverbial “cougar,”‘ but somehow Rick keeps going flaccid right at the moment of conquest. We learn through flashback that this has happened to him a number of times at Cornell, as well as with a Mexican girl named Connie in Soda Springs.

Indeed, for a novel that claims to be about civil rights — even going so far as to include Martin Luther King himself as a character (and urgently needing to take a piss, no less), Soda Springs is really about an extremely prudish version of sexual morality. This is early Hitchcock in the sense that in Hitch’s black and white Gaumont British films, all the murders, chases, and intrigue are simply plot ploys to send two young people on a quest whose eventual outcome is marital love. Marshall is doing the same thing here, and by the third or fourth time Rick goes limp before he can compromise his virginity — as well as when his obvious mate-in-waiting, the blond Ginny Sue Bennett, luckily vomits right before throwing away her maidenhood on someone who is not Rick — the reader can sense that chastity is very important to Marshall. For a book so filled with young men nervously spilling semen on older women before they can get it in — and once Rick and Ginny actually do make love (love being with a capital ‘L’ here, the whole damn universe moving, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing in the background) — Soda Springs isn’t very sexy. Try this example, from when Rick and Ginny finally manage to make “the beast with two backs”:

[Rick] took a packet from his billfold, laid it on her nightstand. He hung his shirt on her chair, as casually as if it were his own bedroom. As he undressed, she slipped of her bikini, dropped it between the bed and wall. He tore open the packet and took out the thingy. She closed her eyes. The bed sagged. He crawled in, kissed each cheek, her chin, her forehead. Finally, their lips met. Then his body cloaked hers like a downy parka in winter, not crushing her, as she feared, but a lovely melding into a single being. He smelled clean and scrubbed, but with a subtle masculine scent that promised transition into a new world. He knew exactly what to do, and she instinctively squiggled to accommodate him.

What is a “downy parka” — even as a metaphor — doing in a sex scene? Not to mention the most important one in the book! Maybe if it was winter, but it’s the middle of summer. And even if it was winter, the word parka doesn’t belong in any sex scene that doesn’t involve Eskimos. Even then, I doubt any love-making Eskimos would want parkas around. That’s long before we get to the unfortunate choice of the word “squiggled.” Squiggled? Could any word be less sexy? Dear lord, how I fondly remember my first sexual partner “squiggling” beneath me like a “downy parka.” The very dry stage directions (”She closed her eyes. The bed sagged.”), as well Marshall’s insistence on everyone using a condom (”thingy”), whisk away any steam as quickly as an Arctic blast over boiling water.

The list of weird things that happen in this book is long and includes Marshall’s bludgeoning the reader with overuse of the N-word, white college kids in black face, every racist character a two-dimensional Southern cop with a crew cut, or a Neanderthalic, rapist football coach. Indeed, the pivotal, unearned rape scene feels so forced as to be waving a banner which says “Pivotal, Unearned Rape Scene.” Not to mention it’s completely unnecessary: the rapist was already a fully established monster even before the grotesque violation. The Mexicans all speak fluent English, but too often like Cheech Marin in Born in East L.A.; Rick’s past and future love, Concha, is so stereotypically drawn as to be cringe-worthy. Not only does she have wide hips and a big fro, but she also has a kid out of wedlock. The good farmers come across as “aw-shucks” Oakies; the thin humor in the book is mostly potty mouth. For a book trying to be overtly politically correct, there’s a gentle racism to everything in it.

I’ve had nicer things to say about lesser books, and fully believing in, “If you have nothing good to say . . .” — I’m certain something awful will happen to me soon. Still, this is how the game is played, and when we take to the field as aggressively as was done with this book, we have to really want to be there. It took me two years, but I eventually thanked the first man who tore me a new asshole in public — Geoff Nicholson, in a full page review in the Sunday New York Time­s — for leaving me mentally shredded, and my pen mute for a whole year. The fact was, I overcame that to write more books, and can never be hurt that way again. I do hope, just as I hope for every writer, that Mr. Marshall presses on. I have a feeling he will, since he offers so many writing tips on his website.

Though he didn’t impress me with this one, a riot scene happened to be quite good, and for having been self-published, Soda Springs is free of typos. Before Mr. Marshall or his loved ones break out the tar and feathers, it should be noted that bad reviews sell as many books as good ones do. Besides, neither Mr. Marshall’s nor Mr. Brown’s self-promotion holds a candle to a certain unnamed poet , who I fondly remember banging an actual drum, and shouting — actually shouting! — from a corner of the book hall at AWP Vancouver, about himself of course, and of course, about his book.

Terry Marshall was a Head Start director, an activist and protestor, was awarded a Robert F. Kennedy Memorial full-time organizing fellowship, and the Denver Post featured him as “Rural Colorado’s hometown revolutionary.” A draft of Soda Springs won first prize in general fiction from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. He holds a Ph.D. in Rural Sociology from Cornell, and is the author of The Whole World Guide to Language Learning, a text on how to learn unwritten foreign languages.

Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s  (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03) latest novel, Mule, was recently optioned for film by Warner Bros. His website is TonyDSouza.com.