BOOK REVIEW / Paradise recycled in the sun: 'Spring Street Summer' - Christopher Hudson: Viking, 16.99

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The Independent Culture
IN THE beginning was the quest: 'I had flown all the way out here, to California, to find a missing person,' writes Christopher Hudson, '. . . let's call him C'

C was diffident, charming, articulate and well-mannered, an Englishman in his middle twenties back in 1976, researching Paradise in southern California - the place, Saul Bellow tells us, where everything loose in America tends to fetch up, where in the late Sixties and the drug-saturated Seventies, whatever wasn't screwed down was certain to end screwed up.

'Spring Street was where it had all happened . . . Maybe it hadn't been as wonderful as I romantically supposed it to have been. . .' Hudson is bent on finding out. He subtitles his travelogue 'A Journey of Rediscovery', for C, of course, is Hudson himself; it is also a journey of reminiscence, of verification - an anthropological, Janus-like quest to discover and exorcise the past, to free the passage to the future.

He tracks down Howard, the hippie godfather of the 'flaky, lotus-eating' collective, now decamped to suburbia with its soundtrack of lawnmowers. Howard is making out as a pillar of society, 'clean shaven, with a neat haircut and mild, intelligent eyes behind brown spectacles'. For him, the past 'was another country; he was pushing on, he had work to do'. Ditto Hudson. They flick through an album, chorus some names: 'That was Rick . . . Then there was Andrea.' The pop-up past is looming. You can't escape Hudson's fascination with 'the magic that was inside that place'. He is fascinated, too, by his own fascination.

Now and again he hits a faintly ridiculous note: 'The Noble Savage had put on a business suit and melted into the crowd.' This denies to Howard the metamorphosis that Hudson assertively claims for himself. Time and again, as he tracks his old buddies to pastures new, crossing America to Detroit, heading to Canada, he confronts the facts of change: time-worn faces, pinstriped suits, names engraved on office doors, all 'the pressure towards conformity' that implies an act of betrayal.

He weaves in the story of Adam and Eve, even recounting the moment when, in the garden of the commune, among the vegetables with three naked women students one Sunday afternoon, he finds himself visited by a snake. Hudson can't keep the fruit of knowledge from crowding the branches of his thoughts.

One feels it's a hedge against nostalgia. St Augustine, Martin Luther and the Orpington Methodists of Hudson's haunted childhood gatecrash Spring Street Summer, mostly bearing tidings of dire Original Sin. We are treated to Paradise recycled, but really the nub of the matter is Laura.

C and Laura's love embodied the power of myth. My major worry about this book - the invisibility of its author among the flurry of recollections - disappeared at the point of the lovers' reunion. Hudson, who writes with a wistful detachment, immaculate pacing and a laser- sharp eye, at last finds the heart to match his intellect. Agonisingly honest, their relationship is charted unsentimentally.

This is a fascinating book which, once its sensibility surfaces, is compelling; and the ending lands beautifully, a narrative touchdown merging gravity with levity. Despite the title, Spring Street Summer is a book for any season.

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