About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

#9 - The Maine Event

Sorry, I couldn't resist. As promised, 9 was The School on Heart's Content Road, by Carolyn Chute. Unique, vivid setting; fascinating characters. A bit slow at times, however, with a somewhat unsatisfying ending. The setting will be familiar to anyone who's read The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Chute's first novel, which was published 20-some odd years ago (tangent alert: while I didn't remember much of the book till I reread it a few years ago, I do remember smuggling it under my coat to a babysitting gig while I was in high school, because it reportedly had explicit content and I was worried about what my employers would think). Heart's Content Road is also set in Egypt, a fictitious backwoods town in rural Maine, populated by a patchwork of fascinating characters. An online review describes Chute's characters as "the working poor," which is accurate but doesn't really capture their depth and complexity. This is not some big-hearted novel full of quirky but lovable country folk; many of the scenes are uncomfortable, and the characters certainly aren't all likeable. They are, however, amazingly real -- warts and all. If that means they give you the creeps or make your skin crawl a bit, well, that's on you.

At any rate, Heart's Content Road has a tremendous cast of characters -- so many, in fact, that Chute includes an annotated character list after the end of the novel, though you don't really need it to figure out who the important players are, and I only bothered to skim it after I'd read the rest of the book. The principals are Mickey Gammon, a high-school dropout who gets kicked out of the house by his older brother and is welcomed by a citizens' militia and separatist cooperative; Jane Meserve, a precocious but isolated 6 year old who ends up living with the separatists against her will after her mother is jailed on a drug charge; Rex York, the divorced, taciturn Vietnam vet who captains the militia; and Gordon St. Onge, the charismatic, polygamist separatist leader known as "The Prophet" (though it's not clear if this is really what the separatists themselves call him, or just how he's portrayed in the media).

The plot? It's hard to describe. Certainly some of the characters and circumstances change from the book's beginning to its end, but for the most part, the book has a day-in-the-life feel to it -- it's more a series of sketches of these people's and this community's life over the course of a few months than a linear story. Interspersed with these sketches are short blurbs, some factual ("In the United States of America, 'Land of the Free.' A new prison is being built every week."), some over-the-top satirized sound bites from a TV ("Be afraid. Poor people are lazy and immoral, and violence is on their fingertips for some reason, who knows the reason, it's just their idea of fun. It's always this way; they steal cars drugs money and gunnnnnz! They are filled with sex and rotten teeth and food stamps and Cadillacs and bad English!") -- which at first seem jarring and random, but you soon get the point: the stories Chute tells about her characters stand in sharp contrast to what we typically hear or don't hear about People Like This. Why might some people be drawn to militias? What's so wacky about CSAs or off-the-grid energy or homeschooling, anyhow? (This technique could easily be ham-handed, and fortunately, it doesn't get there; we see less of it the further into the novel we get, by which time we've presumably gotten the point.)

My one complaint about the book is that it seemed both jumpy and plodding in some places. This may be deliberate -- Chute's really writing the literary equivalent of cinema verite here -- but still made it hard to pick up and put down some times. The ending also felt unsatisfying, though I'll admit I tend to like my tales a bit tidier than they come sometimes, and again, it may be part of the point that there really is no clear resolution, no obvious purpose to all this. 4.5 out of 5 bookmarks, though I'm thinking as I write this that it's a lot stronger than some of my other recent reads; it's hard to be consistent with ratings when the books themselves are so different.

On deck: Three Girls and Their Brother, by Theresa Rebeck, because after Heart's Content Road and Blonde Roots, I need to read something fluffy and fun about rich people. After that, probably Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, by Kevin Phillips. (Gee, if you think my trying to critique middlebrow fiction is pretentious ... )

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