Our literary establishment seems designed to ensure that a writer’s first novel is his best. Norman Mailer, James Jones, William Styron and J.D. Salinger are only a few of the better-known novelists whose first work defined the acme of their creative careers. (In the case of John Barth, the second novel, The End of the Road, was aptly named.) The reasons for this phenomenon are not far to seek. Good fiction grows out of an intimate knowledge of real life, with all the unpredictable idiosyncrasies and peculiar traditions of some particular neighborhood, community, or family. Employment with the American fiction industry destroys all that. The budding writer—delighted at the success of his first book—moves to New York or Boston, where he begins giving interviews, appearing on talk shows, and lecturing at creative-writing seminars. In short, the author decals into a celebrity, out of touch with everything that gave him a reason for writing. William Styron provides the best example of this dismal process at work on a Southerner, but Al Hines, a Texan by birth, may well follow in his tracks. 

Hines’ Square Dance (Harper & Row; New York; $14.95) is a compelling first novel, opening a window upon the rural Southwest of a generation ago. The central characters—a cantankerous chicken farmer and his illegitimate granddaughter—may not be entirely satisfactory as representatives of a time and place characterized by family cohesiveness. Still, Hines depicts the world of small-town Texas—of folk sayings and Bible preaching, or square dancing and bass fishing, of neighborly cooperation and petty gossip—with sympathy and skill. 

Inevitably, the chicken farmer’s granddaughter leaves for Fort Worth, “a big city, with lots o things going on.” But after a hard initiation into the New South of random sex, violence, and dissipation, she finally returns to the sureties of farm life and tornadoes. Unfortunately, just as we are about to hail the arrival of a new regional talent, we learn from the dust jacket that Hines has himself relocated in New York, another “big city, with lots of things going on.” Unlike his heroine, he apparently plans to stay in the metropolis, where he now works as a teacher and editor, when he is not appearing on the writers’ conference circuit. 

Next he will be writing novels about the inferiority complex a Texan gets in the company of New York intellectuals. Perhaps a national book award and then, the final insult, a decoration from the French government. cc