When Life Was Like a Cucumber depicts an odyssey of identity-seeking, set during the Watergate years.
Jeffrey Hesse, a college graduate eschewing corporate life, is at a crossroads: The place where he’s staying has burned to the ground (largely his fault) and, in the aftermath, his marriage has failed. Capitalizing on newfound freedom, Jeff embarks on a free-spirited journey across America and Western Europe, imbued with drug-laced camaraderie and sexual discovery.
Many characters figure into Jeff’s adventures, but the story largely consists of a repeating scenario: Jeff becomes infatuated with a woman; they have frank sexual encounters, alternated with scenes of getting high; and, finally, the relationship falls apart. The pattern eventually grows tedious. Jeff’s most introspective moments come much later when he gains lucidity about his sexual compulsions and notices how rudderless his life has become.
Greg Wyss is a talented writer, and there are moments of transcendent wordcraft, particularly involving the perceptual distortions of drugs. As Jeff relates during “the waning hours” of an acid trip: “The world was a holocaust, but inside crumpled cigarettes floated methodically and outside it was still raining. Energy raged with nowhere to go.” Wyss’s best writing is artful, offering readers a vivid, believable look at the times.
Wyss attempts to deliver bigger themes, as well, contrasting the disillusionment of the Nixon era against the protagonist’s wistful recollection of a time spent celebrating life itself—while weaving in the titular metaphor, as well. Unfortunately, the troubles of the era remain mostly in the background, and the metaphor is never sufficiently explained. Thus, when Wyss tries to entwine both concepts into a conclusion, it falls flat and overlooks the more interesting parts of Jeff’s story: namely his self-destruction, arrested development, and escapism.
Wyss evokes the tradition of Kerouac and succeeds in delivering an entertaining and credible, if repetitive, tale of late hippie-era exploration. It’s frequently raunchy, often funny, and occasionally sweet, but falters when it reaches for deeper meaning.
Also available as an ebook.