This Sunday I revisited the Riverfront Trail. It was gorgeous weather, nothing like last week, and an all around fun ride. Biking from U. City we covered roughly 43 miles and crossed the river into Illinois. There are a few spots full of debris, and some ugly crossings over the roads, and this delightful obstacle where the path washed away. Made me think of Shel Silverstein and Where the Sidewalk Ends.
There’s an appeal to disappearing, a romantic idea of starting all over again, leaving a shared past for others to interpret and understand while new possibilities stretch out. What would it be like to step from the restraints of one’s identity? Kobo Abé approaches some of these ideas in The Woman in the Dunes, but from a perspective that is more Hitchcock or Poe than anyone else.
The novel opens with a middle age teacher out collecting insects for the week along an obscure coast of Japan. He’s told no one his plans in an attempt to cause jealousy among his co-workers and so that they will fall into the bland trap of gossip. Nobody knows where he has gone. He’s kept it from his mother, and from the woman with whom he is in a relationship. The teacher has decided to search this area for insects because it is remote and he has also developed a theory of the shifting nature of sand, which appeals to his world view. It’s along these dunes that he discovers a village in struggle with the sand. The people are poor, isolated, and mistrustful. The dunes threaten their small village and pile around the perimeter. Looking for shelter, the teacher is taken to a place where he can spend the night. The night turns into days and weeks.
The survival of the town depends on these homes beyond the perimeter where the poorest villagers live in the bottoms of steep bowls shaped from the winds. Each night the men and women must dig out the sand while the villagers haul it up. The teacher has become a slave. He resists, he plots his escapes, he lashes out at the woman with whom he lives and questions his life and identity.
From a creative perspective, this is an interesting novel. As a fan of Haruki Murakami, I wondered if The Woman in the Dunes influenced his writing at all. Following the vein of magic realism or the bizarre, it is an easy progression from writer to the next. Granted, this is the first novel I’ve read by Abé, so my ideas may be completely unfounded. Full of tension and terror, the reader begins to question what their own actions may be in similar situation (think kidnapping alone, and not kidnapping and life living in the bottom of a strange, shifting, dune village). The writing is not full of beauty, but this may be because it is a translation. It is a quick read though, and if you are looking for something a little different, this book will provide a haunting narrative.
Eventide follows the lives of the people from Holt, Colorado three years after the happenings of Plainsong. Haruf again demonstrates his ability to describe the relationships and worlds which old and young people share each different and nuanced in ways that do not always make sense to someone outside that age. It’s the overlap that is beautiful, those moments of friendship shared by children and adults. This novel picks up with the McPheron brothers, and follows their lives as tragedy strikes.
Added to the mix of characters are a disabled married couple dependent on social services, and trying to raise their children as best they can. This family is taken advantage of by a dead-beat relative who abuses the family and manipulates them into taken care of him. While this was well written, the antagonist is heavily painted as an ugly, despicable man. There were complaints of that in Plainsong, but to me this characterization was on display to a wider degree in Eventide. There is nothing redeemable about this character, and while it may speak more to my own view of the world,I found it short sighted and false. There was not a single scene where the character is portrayed in anyway other than evil. Perhaps, Haruf has difficulty with the ambiguity of people. Most of the other characters are full of goodness and their negative actions often don’t seem to bad, or at least do nothing to make the reader call into question their moral integrity. Among the McPherons, Victoria, Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones, moral standing is a shared quality and though they might occasionally let go of their tempers, they become a little bland as the reader rarely sees any inner thoughts and when those thoughts are shown they don’t dwell on the doubts, or hypothetical situations that plague richer characters. Survival is the key, and it seems that the people on Holt have a bunker mentality.
One new character that best bridges this gap, is a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. In the start of the novel, things are fine and the woman does her best to help out a young boy who lives with and takes care of his grandfather. Throughout the novel, her life descends into alcohol abuse and a dead end relationship with a local man. She goes from being a great mom to one that has trouble taking care of herself, let alone her children. As the novel ends, she takes control over her life again, and the reader is left with the image that she will pull through.
If you read Plainsong and enjoyed it, then you should read this book. It goes fast, is enjoyable and fills that craving to know more with which Plainsong leaves a reader. However, keep in mind this is a sequel that seems driven to tell a little more while not being all that original. It is a lesser work and Haruf follows some of the same patterns in writing the narrative. The instance that stands out is the character of Rose Tyler, who seems to be this novel’s version of Maggie Jones, a female character who is never fully focused on yet seems to navigate between the worlds of people whose stories would tend not to overlap. Haruf is able to pull together a sense of landscape and the affect that landscape has on people. His writing is full of beauty and heartbreak and that tends to outshine the narrative failings.
I’ve heard the words, you should know better, often in my life and I’m sure I will hear them through the many stages I have yet to go through – marriage, fatherhood, aging, and death. These words have been spoken mostly from a place of love, so I harbor them no ill will, but more a grudging acceptance. You’re right. I should know better.
On Sunday, there was no one to speak these words to me, which is not a justification because if a family member or girlfriend spoke them, there are strong odds I would have ignored them. Stubbornness is one of those qualities that cuts across the grain. Tasks are accomplished, goals are achieved, but not everything that can be done should be done. These thoughts weren’t in the forefront of my mind on Sunday. Instead, I was thinking about the scrapped bike ride on Saturday because it rained for an hour and the roads were slick. I was thinking of being out on my road bike, feeling the wind against my face and the motion of my legs propelling me over the cement through neighborhoods in decay, among the canyons and cobbles of downtown St. Louis and along that wide meandering waterway, the Mississippi. Afterwards, there would be the sore legs, wobbly and light from use, exhilarated to have logged twenty-five to thirty miles. These were my thoughts. Forecasts and weather patterns predicted by excitable men in ill-fitting suits often turn out incorrect or caution us against the outdoors. Without television or Internet, I looked out the window and thought it looked alright out.
We biked through the Delmar Loop, the skies grey overhead and followed the road east toward the river. Storefronts transformed from buildings bustling with people to boarded up windows, vacant lots, signs weathered from years of humidity, freezing winters, and neglect. Somewhere we hung a right, turned again and caught Washington, passing the shell of a church it’s interior open to the sky as if it had been transplanted from a French village after World War II, the Contemporary Art Museum, the Fox Theatre, then the moment passed and the vibrant spike of life dipped back towards the melancholy trough of poverty and disuse. We climbed a long, slow hill, broke the top of it and descended into downtown where people packed the streets on a Sunday to participate in the festivities of the All-Star game, their cash spent on beer, mini-helmets, and baseballs for the kids. It began to drizzle, but we were so close.
The trail was paved and began among a cast of old industrial buildings along the waterfront. Rusted, corrugated, and looming, the buildings don’t let you forget this is an urban area even as the Mississippi crawls by on the East. We began to cycle on the trail, a smooth surface of asphalt separated with a painted line down the middle. The trail danced with the floodwall, a huge concrete barrier well suited for keeping out water or invading hoards from across the river. Passing through the flood gates, there was an ominous feeling, what if those gates were to close? It was easy to imagine. Sirens would wail. Lights would flash. Metal would grind in slow motion. Water full of tree limbs and debris would breach the banks; cyclists would be swept down toward Memphis, the Gulf, a warm flux caught between islands and cruise ships.
As we pedaled, the warm rain continued lightly, leaving our skin damp. We topped a berm, the earth piled against the wall, and paused. To the west stretched a storm-front gusting in from the plains. The wall of clouds appeared flat, a cross section of greys with a highlight of muddy yellow, perhaps from the sun edging along the outskirts. Beneath these clouds, the city sprawled in shadow. We pedaled on.
In the long run, maybe I did know better. That voice came from within this time. We should turn around. Continuing on with the mindlessness of nature the storm roiled nearer, we looped around, the sounds of the river shifting from right to left. Within moments the heavy rain started. A downpour opened over us. Then the wind hit. With the added speed, the water felt like hundreds of needles driven into our exposed skin. Trees thrashed. Leaves swirled. Water pooled on the trail, soaked into our clothes and shoes, forced us to tilt our heads against it and squint. Still, we pedaled on. Urgency fueled with fear. When we topped the berm again, we were thrown into the full force of the storm. The wind swept up over the weedy grass of the exposed hill, visible by the spray of water which flicked with the contours of the earth. It hit me and I felt fear. Not of closing flood gates, but of riding a metal frame through a thunder storm, of blowing off my bike and breaking an ankle or hearing the crack of a collar bone. I shifted into the wind. My body pitched at an angle, the drops popping on the plastic of my helmet. Gusts blew and I counterbalanced. Should I get off my bike and jog it off the hill? This idea was overridden by the desire to escape the storm as quickly as possible. I pushed myself. Hoped my friend was behind me, because looking back would have been one action too many. We rode down the hill, passed through a floodgate and were on the other side of the wall. An older man, much smarter than us stood in a niche, sheltered from the wind and rain. We passed by him, his gaze tracking our movements. Life on this side of the wall was different. The wind broke against concrete and steel, barred, it offered us a brief respite though the rain still managed to drown every inch of our skin. Our clothes heavier from the water stretched on our limbs.
At last, we ended up along the landing back in St. Louis. An emergency sign informed that the area was closed. We pedaled up the steep hill into the city, and stopped at the first bar we saw. With little deliberation, we locked the bikes, walked into the dark room. The Cardinals were losing to the Cubs in Chicago, the scene sunny and removed on the TV. We sat at a table near the door, thankful the floor and stools were solid wood as puddles formed from our dripping clothes and shoes.
We ordered beer and a platter of fries, our money soggy but still good. Nasty out there, the waitress said, made it in just in time. Yeah, we replied, shaking our heads as the scene replayed for both of us, and lightning cracked between the buildings. I drank my beer, thankful for a roof over head, for a friend with whom to toast my glass, thankful for a tomorrow when a loved one once again tells me the words I should heed.
Plainsong is a well executed novel that displays Kent Haruf’s understanding of people and love for the Great Plains. The novel centers around a few different characters with the chapters named simply for whose section of the story is being told. These characters include: Victoria Roubideaux – a pregnant teenager without many options, Guthrie – a local teacher trying to raise his sons as his marriage disintegrates, the McPheron brothers – two old bachelors who raise cattle, and Ike and Bobby – Guthrie’s sons.
Haruf’s writing is full of compassion, tenderness and a knowledge of the human condition. His characters are complex and lead lives full of small triumphs and at times crushing disappointments. They do not always make wise choices, or have qualities we would call exemplary, however, Haruf has treated even the most shameful and sad characters with respect. The reader can understand how these characters came into being, how the small town of Holt, sparse and windswept, might produce grudges and loneliness.
There are times when it seems as though the novel might swing towards melodrama or sentimentality, but Haruf manages to keep it from crossing that line. Partly, this is accomplished by not adding in an editorialized narration. Events are seen, but not expounded on, in some cases not even by the characters in the novel, whom are a reserved, tight-lipped cast. Some of my favorite parts of the book were the chapters following Ike and Bobby. It is in these chapters that the reader re-experiences the world of a child, which is full of unknowns and half-understood demands. Ike and Bobby navigate the world of adults as best they can while balancing their needs for love and attention against their distrust and lack of understanding of the people around them.
Once you start this novel, you may find it hard to put down. I read it in a couple of days, and look forward to reading Eventide, which follows the lives of these characters.
Shameless fund raising for the Bike MS: Express Scripts Gateway Getaway 2009 through the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. I need to have at least $250 in pledges to be able to ride. Please donate what you can and help the cause (and my ride).
On June 12th, 2009 the networks shifted to DTV. If you haven’t noticed, either you don’t have a TV or have the ability to conjure programs from watching static snow, much like those cryptic pictures with hidden sailboats and puppies. As we built up to this shift, there was hype and proclamations about how great our lives will be with digital TV. Personally, my life did change greatly, and for the better. I decided not to get a converter box. I decided not to have television.
As I’m writing this, it seems like a blessing. Michael Jackson died, and I’m not flooded with images, sounds, and repetition. Every channel would be playing the same thing. The same people would be interviewed, and with the beats of Billie Jean in the background they would all be saying the same thing. What a tragedy the King of Pop is dead.
The news cycle displays all the symptoms of shock.
Skin condition is described as pale, cold, wet. Just think of Bill O’Reilly.
Also, people often have a rapid pulse with short rapid breathes. Now it is true that some Buddhist practitioners have used yelling at each and talking over each other while controlling their heart rate in an effort to slow their metabolism and achieve nirvana, or to ready themselves for a flight to the U.S., but for the rest of us this is quite hard to master and so we must study the one known as Hannity Sensei.
Television and media is a two way street. They perform and as such, need an audience. The other symptoms of shock are experiences one may have when viewing the media cycle. These are nausea and/or vomiting, collapse and unconsciousness, and progressive ‘shutdown’ of body’s vital functions. Remember OJ? Iraq War part I (that was the good one, part II dragged on forever)? Or that other thing that happened last year?
So while most people have been overwhelmed with the news and the repetition of grief, I’ve enjoyed the break and am recovering nicely. Once the nausea ended, and I got a few more fluids back in my body, I could turn my attention to the more important things in life. I didn’t get rid of the TV itself, just didn’t get a converter box.
I just sent out five flash fiction pieces (four of them Donnie and Sam stories, the fifth a story about bread in Japan) to this contest through NPR.
Wish me luck!
So, I’m writing this novel, or supposed to be writing this novel — the line gets blurred at times so it’s hard to tell if I am writing a novel or merely making myself feel guilty about not spending enough time with it. A few weeks ago I hit a wall.
Names of characters. Some of you have read the flash fiction which has generated this novel, which I tend to think of as the “Donnie and Sam” stories. There were a few instances of people hating the name Donnie. Why Donnie? they’d say, It sounds so unintelligent. I think those people just have bad connotations with the name, Donnie, and as a result can’t get past it. To them, I say deal with it. This is where my problem started. I toyed with changing the names, because let’s face it, Donnie is a goofy name. So I wrote a section with the names changed to Ethan and Lilly, but it was like everything was different. Who are Ethan and Lilly? Those names seem much more mature than Donnie and Sam, (Sam is short for Samantha). It was like starting over again, and I didn’t feel the same sense of energy that caused the prolific writing of the Donnie and Sam stories.
This week, I sat down to write some more. I didn’t look at the Ethan and Lilly section, but just started a new section with the old names. Everything returned. I knew these characters.
It may be sacrilege to some of you for me to say this, but I think Shakespeare is wrong. There is much to a name (just look at all the Google Scholar hits on, brand name). Again, I’m sure some people are saying that doesn’t relate! Shakespeare and brand names, how dare you. A rose may smell as sweet by any other name, but would you rather smell a flower called a rose, or one called a stank blossom?
All of this is to say that names matter. A name brings with it certain ideas and concepts. It’s hard to imagine a character named Bubba being an intelligent investment banker brought up in private schools. Don’t get hung up on what to name a character, when the right one comes along, you should know, but also don’t take it lightly — you may find yourself stuck unable to write with too much time to pause and smell the stank blossoms.
less, a bystander
more used to repairing with my hands
solving problems with my mind
like what to do with the cat-clawed screen
how to fill the freedom from a relationship
fatigued through repetitive motion
which will wear any bindings
whether formed from plastic molds and metal
or twists of skin, bone, and muscle.
I watch as icons
turn green in support of a revolution in the desert,
as friends and loved ones fall
ill to the diseases of the body
areas where I have no domain
where my only offer are words scattered
more like loose change in the hands
than an open palm pulling up.
We light candles, pray
ponder phrases like “positive outcomes”
ask not for strength
but for the ability to bear witness
to persist like a lighthouse
on the rocks
as the waves roll in
wash across the wooden beams
and rusted iron
the lamp which revolves
noticed or not.