A Mouth Like Yours by Daniel Duane. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005; 195 pages; $24.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
A brutally honest novel about love and illusion from the author of Caught Inside. Cassius Harper, ambivalent child of the Seventies, is leading a modest and respectable life in San Francisco's flush Nineties: he has a promising doctoral thesis, a doting new lover, the company of old friends and adoring parents, even a rent-controlled apartment by the beach where he's surfed all his life. So why the upwelling of nameless dread? Why the regret after cocktail parties and the road rage and, worst of all, the certainty that he is somehow a stranger to himself? Harper has always seen transformative love as the heart's salvation; but he's found his elusive ideal only twice, with miserable consequences. A Mouth Like Yours tells of a third and grand collision, with the vulnerable, volatile, and addictive Joanie Artois.
So quickly does Harper lose himself in Joanie, so thoroughly does she colonize his heart, that he sets out to understand why, exactly, love always unmans him this way. Exploring what carnal love can do for us and what it cannot, A Mouth Like Yours is a poignant statement about the growing pains of a generation.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
The New York Times: Cassius Harper, a Berkeley graduate student, delivers a throe-by-throe account of his painful subjection to Joan Artois, daughter of a vague California aristocracy and flakier than a mille-feuille. She seemingly rolls up together every wild and witchy heroine in modern fiction, from Hemingway's Brett Ashley to Capote's Holly Golightly.
Publisher's Weekly: Duane tracks the emotional meanderings of Berkeley grad student Cassius Harper in this meticulous study of the ambivalence and romantic bewilderment of privileged American 20-somethings.... Duane offers moments of keen observation and emotional lucidity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Daniel Duane is the author of Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast (NPP, 1996) and Looking For Mo (FSG, 1998). He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two young daughters.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
In a year's time I read perhaps 50 novels and leaf through many more. Of new novels I've read in 2005, I cannot think of one that moved me more deeply than A Mouth Like Yours. The novel reads as if the reader were playing and re-playing an old and favorite love song, a song perhaps popular when the reader herself were younger and in love. With each replay the text reveals some new aspect of a lover's character or a view across water or a night when too much wine was drunk. The story is fraught with gawky tenderness and pain and told in sentences that dig into the memory the way worms dig into compost. Duane knows what hurts and he knows how to get that pain onto paper. I asked about Mr. Duane's title and said how much I liked it.
The title, of course, is from Joni Mitchell's song "A Case of You," from which comes the line, "She had a mouth like yours."
"I'm glad you like it. I like it too," Mr. Duane said, "and I like saying it. I'm a big Joni Mitchell fan, and so was the Joan character until I confronted the fact that you have to pay an arm and a leg to reprint even a line or two of a Joni Mitchell song. Several Joni Mitchell songs seemed to me to capture the Joan character, or the character of women like her -- like the song 'Cactus Tree.' But the title came to mind while listening to 'A Case of You,' as in 'I could drink a case of you darling,/Still I'd be on my feet.'
"Once I'd picked the title it had a life for me separate from the song. I liked the various possible meanings -- I liked the sense of people echoed through other people, lives echoed through other lives. I liked the hint of Joanie's sharp tongue being bound up with her erotic allure, the hint of reprimand."
Daniel Duane was born in Washington, D.C., in 1967, to a lawyer father and housewife mother. Mr. Duane grew up in Berkeley and went to public schools. He graduated from Berkeley High in the class of 1985. He graduated from Cornell in 1989, where he fell under the spell of A.R. (Archie) Ammons (1926--2001).
As a child Mr. Duane was a reader of pulp. "My mother really didn't approve of all the things I read. I devoured science fiction and fantasy novels and Tarzan; I read the entire Tarzan series. John Carter of Mars and all that stuff. Anyway, my mother used to raise her nose at it and tell me how when she was my age she was reading, I don't know..."
"War and Peace?"
"Yup, that's what it was actually. 'A great Russian novel,' that's actually what she said.
"But at some point in high school, in 10th grade, somebody asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said I wanted to be a writer. I didn't have any sense that I would actively pursue that. So I had that idea. But as far as reading, I did, in my junior and senior years of high school, have English teachers I liked a lot. I got -- this is embarrassing -- but I was completely swept away by Fitzgerald.
"I read Fitzgerald all the way through in high school. This Side of Paradise, I was knocked out by it. I actually badly wanted to go to Princeton because of the fantasy of what that would be."
"Isn't it amazing when you come up on those first books and they take over your life?"
"Yeah. Yeah, yeah. In graduate school, where I did a Ph.D. in English at Santa Cruz, I was doing 19th-century American prose in critical theory. While I was there I had great experiences reading Joyce and Yeats. But I was reading all of this obscure 19th-century stuff. I had big experiences, you know, the big obvious 19th-century novels and Twain, especially Twain. But at some point in graduate school it occurred to me that I was on my way to getting a Ph.D. in English without having read any novels by Hemingway. So all of the 20th-century fiction that I read was as a result of that.