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Book News

A compelling literary career may be just beginning

'The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora'
by Michael Nesmith

St. Martin's Press, $24.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

Web posted on: December 21, 1998 01:10:22 p.m. ET

(CNN) -- Somewhere between Amarillo and Apache Pass, there's a place for the world-weary to find truth, beauty and the blues. It exists in, and on, the legends that are literally older than the hills of New Mexico. Once you've found it, you understand two things. First, your life will never be the same. Second, you can never go back.

Michael Nesmith spends part of his life among the sere and sorrel of New Mexico. He has absorbed the mystery and mysticism of the landscape, and infused it into his first novel "The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora". Yes, it's that Michael Nesmith -- the Monkee with the hat, the music video pioneer, the screenwriter and movie producer. Now he's a novelist, and, it turns out, a pretty good one.

He has written a chronicle of the quest for self-awareness, as seen through the eyes of an admittedly semi-autobiographical character named Nez. Driven by a mysterious cassette tape filled with amazing blues music, he travels to New Mexico in search of the composer. He has only a name to go on: Neftoon Zamora. At a diner on the edge of the desert, he meets Neffie, a remarkable woman who may or may not be the object of his search.

Like the legendary Zamora, Neffie has long sandy hair, an unusual feature in a land where raven black tresses are the hereditary norm. But is Neffie really Neftoon, as the owner of the diner claims? She insists she is not, and indeed some of the legends depict Zamora as a man. Not that she believes all the legends. She tells Nez she's simply paid to spin the tall tales, some of which date back to the days of the pueblo builders, others she weaves on the spot out of whole cloth.

Then there's the music, the haunting blues that drew Nez to New Mexico in the first place. The jukebox at the diner is filled with Neftoon Zamora songs.

"When I pushed the button next to the song 'You Got to Trust the Pilot,' the Seeburg lit up, clicked, swallowed the command somewhere in its electronics, and the song came over the speakers in the diner as well as from the big, mother-ship jukebox standing in the corner. An orchestra, mostly synthetic, began lush sweeps and someone who sounded like William Shatner began a half-sung, half-spoken recitation of the Zamora tune. I looked at the song list in front of me. It was William Shatner, sounding like he did on his recording of 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.'"

The truth of Neftoon Zamora proves to be as elusive as the true voice of the songwriter. His search for Nez to a village carved into the side of a valley. It also draws him, inevitably, into the arms of Neffie. She opens the door that leads to her world, a world where time and space and hunger don't mean the same things they mean to the world outside. In his descriptions of the unworldly place his protagonist finds himself, Nesmith echoes the styles of two writers he calls "touchstones"-Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Lewis Carroll. He constructs a narrative that's part magical realism, part "The Red Queen's Race."

"I was uncomfortable with this. Happy, smiling, beautiful people on their way to a dance in a magical canyon city beneath the starry moonlit sky of New Mexico, away from the world, in a world of their own. But there it was. And I was part of it. Of course, I was up to my eyeballs in love, so the glow over everything could have made a root canal seem attractive."

Nez and Neffie can't stay in this idyllic place forever, of course. When they emerge from it, Nesmith sets them on the road to much more mundane adventurers. Even so, they meet unusual people (like the ruthless billionaire child-porn trafficker) and see unusual things (like the palatial service station standing all alone on a desert road). But their interactions with the outside world are not nearly as interesting nor as much fun as their inner explorations.

"The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora" is an impressively unexpected novel. It is not the sort of thing a celebrity would toss off in the hope of cashing in on a famous name. Instead, it serves notice that a compelling literary career may be just beginning. Michael Nesmith, hats off.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

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