by Jeffrey Lent (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002)
The dramatic success of Cold Mountain was still rippling through the literary world when its publisher purchased and published Jeffrey Lent’s debut novel, In the Fall. Fall went on to become a national bestseller and launched the former Asheville resident to the top of his game.
Lent’s game is to craft sweeping historical novels that lay bare the romance of America’s early times. And nowhere is such laying bare more bare than in his newest work, Lost Nation, a relentlessly dark, beautifully written book that’s at once savage and graceful.
A solitary figure — Micajah Bolles, who refers to himself simply as “Blood” — travels into the wild high country of New Hampshire in 1838 with little more than a pushcart of trade goods and a 16-year-old prostitute named Sally.
They’re an odd but practical match — practical as far as Blood is concerned, that is. He’s won Sally in a card game at a whorehouse; for her part, she’s just glad to be shed of that place. With Sally in tow, Blood begins his sojourn to seek refuge from the civilized world, his heart full of bitter regrets.
Sally seems at first without guile, still a victim, not much more to Blood than his wolfish hound, Luther. After an arduous trek, they eventually find an ungoverned settlement called Indian Stream, where everyone poses some unspoken threat and the smoke-filled air is tense and ripe for violence.
But Blood isn’t so simple as he first seems, either, nor incautious. He eventually manages to establish a store where a man can trade fur and drink rum. And, for the price of a dollar, a man can also spend some time with Sally. Uneducated, Sally nevertheless possesses an innate sense of who she is, who Blood is and what the situation is — and begins planning a separate future almost from the first.
Sally and Blood’s relationship is complex, mixing mostly business with an odd and scattered assortment of emotional and physical needs. Lent’s deftness at creating character and scene is amazing. You feel winter setting in; you endure the muck pulling at your boots; you smell the unwashed, dangerous men. In one chilling scene, a trapper arrives in the settlement carrying a motley load of furs and the severed head of his partner. Blood denies the trapper any trading. Why? Because of the poor quality of his furs, of course. The man is later found butchered by what’s suspected to be a pair of roving Indians. This discovery sends an alarm through the camp, putting into motion an ever-more-violent chain of events.
Blood does his best to stay above the politics of the others in this Lost Nation. He neither wants nor encourages other men to look to him for guidance (his secret past, revealed midway through the novel, causes this resistance to any leadership role). Increasingly, however, the men turn to Blood for help. Then two young men of a secretive nature arrive in the midst of the escalating crisis. Symbolically, they represent both Blood’s past and his future. For Sally, they represent freedom from a life of bondage. Will she accept it?
Lost Nation‘s language, style and preciseness of prose would be difficult for most of today’s best writers to match. This is a solid piece of work forged on an anvil of unrelenting scenes by grit and gift and hammered into the reader’s psyche. Characters like Blood and Sally don’t come along every day, and when they do, we’re glad to have met them.
[Jeffrey Lent lives in Vermont with his wife and daughters. He appears at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.) on Friday, May 17 at 7 p.m. For more info, call 254-6734.]
Some Days There’s Pie
by Catherine Landis (St. Martin’s Press, 2002)
Ruth has left Chuck, who has fallen in love with Jesus. Rose is an aging reporter with lung cancer. The two women meet by chance in a five-and-dime in one of those mythical little North Carolina towns that seem to populate Southern-fried literature more densely these days than real towns.
This encounter precipitates a deep friendship between the two women, who share irrational histories with men and life.
Chuck Allen Pirkle sells sounds systems to Marines at a store called Wuffer Works and soon begins to “Love Jesus more than me,” Ruth tells Rose. Rose reveals that she married her first husband on a bet he couldn’t throw a baseball through a hole.
Ms. Landis certainly seems capable of being the voice of both women, Ruth especially. But what we end up with is something less fresh than what’s hoped for. The characters are surely likable, and the settings and dialogue are as genuine as a park full of mobile homes reflecting midsummer heat.
But there has been born into the publishing world such a plethora of similar books that their sheer bulk tends to dilute the Southern voice. It’s not that we can’t empathize with these characters’ plights — their yearnings, their toughness and resolve. We can. And it’s not that Landis doesn’t revive the feel of the 1970s remarkably well. She does. In fact, it’s hard to find fault with this first novel — other than that it reads like a lot of other first novels of its kind.
There are voices in the genre that demand attention: Melinda Haynes, Daniel Woodrell, Clyde Edgerton, and so forth. And Catherine Landis may soon be among them — but she isn’t quite yet. Her final chapter is poignant without being maudlin, though. And this is a highly readable book, despite its lack of surprises.
But the author has succumbed to that temptation that afflicts so many first-time novelists: allowing too many flashback scenes to creep in and slow the story’s pace. This small flaw, in addition to having Rose’s fate decided in the very first sentence (though I once used a similar tactic in a novel), dissipates much of the well of emotion that could have been employed to make the work stronger. But perhaps the author intended not to prey on these deeper feelings of the reader, contenting herself instead with playing up the capable Ruth’s brassy wit and charm.
I recommend this book for readers who like their Southern Gothic not-so-gothic, their Thelma & Louise not so Thelma & Louise.
[Catherine Landis lives in Knoxville, Tenn. with her husband and two children. She’ll appear at Malaprop’s Bookstore on Thursday, May 23 at 7:30 p.m. Call 254-6734 for more information.]
[Bill Brooks teaches the Blue Ridge Writers Program. He is the author of 10 novels. For a complete list of local author events, see Xpress’ weekly arts & entertainment calendar.]