The Screeds of Egypt, Maine
After a ten-year silence, Carolyn Chute returns with an ambitious but flawed novel.
It’s been almost twenty-five years since novelist Carolyn Chute first staked her claim to literary immortality in an unlikely piece of fictional real estate on Maine’s westernmost border. The School on Heart’s Content Road (Atlantic Monthly Press, 352 pages; $24), her fifth novel, returns to the eponymous small town of The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1985) and its sequel, Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts (1988). It’s an uneasy homecoming, a frustrating book that showcases both Chute’s brilliance and a dispiriting tendency to use her more recent works — Merry Men, Snow Man — as soapboxes, rather than showcases, for her substantial gifts as a storyteller. [For the rest of this story, see the December 2008 issue of Down East.]
Chute’s fiction is often compared to that of John Steinbeck (working-class anti-heroes, disenfranchised rural Americans, etc.), but both The School on Heart’s Content Road and Merry Men are more Dickensian in spirit and breadth than Steinbeck’s work. Like Dickens, Chute advocates sweeping social reforms; both specialize in memorably oddball characters and marvelously crowded scenes that make readers feel as though they’ve been dropped into a London slum or a grange-like dining hall. Like Dickens, she’s not above using the specter of an innocent child’s death as a goad for personal change, as well as a convenient symbol for cultural malaise. Actually, she’s not above using almost all of her characters as convenient symbols, to be deployed or destroyed at will, and in her new novel she uses real symbols — an iconic little house, a dollar sign, a TV screen, a crow, a cloud (for God), and so on — to indicate shifts in point of view. It’s a literary device that, like most devices, functions as a shortcut, and it nearly short-circuits the entire novel.
The school on Heart’s Content Road is not really a school but a large and cheerfully unruly commune, known as the Settlement by its numerous members. Founded years earlier by thirty-nine-year-old Guillaume “Gordie” St. Onge and his first wife, Claire, the Settlement is a benign experiment in cooperative living, a nine hundred-acre self-sufficient compound powered by wind and sun, its residents cheerfully sharing their duties, which include making furniture, tending livestock and fields, and the feeding and education of dozens of people, from infants up to centenarians.
Another thing shared by the women of the Settlement is Gordie’s bed. Claire may be his once and future wife, but whenever called upon (which is often) an ancient minister performs a wedding ceremony at the ancient Hurleytown Church, and before you can spell “polygamy” Gordie takes another bride. No headcount is given, but a fair proportion of the Settlement seems to be made up of his wives and children. Some of the latter are in their teens. So is at least one of his brides, all of whom proudly wear embroidered red sashes proclaiming their status:
“Yeah, laugh if you want. Sure you shared him, but you would never be deceived. You would never be dumped. He would never fall out of love with you . . . Yeah, he was giving you something ancient. A whole. Like the grit and ore planet underneath our feet.”
One can believe in Free Love and still raise an eyebrow at this prelapsarian vision of communal domestic content.
Yet Chute makes the beer-drinking Gordie a surprisingly sympathetic figure, as she does his close friend Rex York. Rex is a Vietnam vet and captain of the Border Mountain Militia, an organization that serves as cultural and social counterweight to Gordie’s Settlement. Drawn to both men is fifteen-year-old Mickey Gammon, a homeless teenager whose very young nephew has recently died, painfully, because his uninsured parents lacked access to adequate medical care.
Chute has never been big on plot. Her work is more concerned with the sticky web of community, family, and belief (ethical, political, economic) that traps her flawed yet engaging characters in small towns where hope is often the only hard currency anyone has to trade. But these days, hope is in hard supply. Unfortunately, Chute substitutes a grindingly dull series of rants: against government, corporations, globalization, television, the media, and schoolteachers, among other obvious and slow-moving targets (except for the teachers, who seem to be a pet peeve). A subplot involving government agents spying on both militia and Settlement could also have been ditched — the agents’ characterization is thin as pasteboard, and as interesting.
More problematic is another central character, six-year-old Jane, taken in by the Settlement while her mother is in prison. Jane speaks in a childish patois that’s at once unbelievable and a lazy substitute for characterization. The characterization veers completely into left field when Jane develops a crush on Mickey and starts talking like someone old enough to drive, rather than a kindergartner.
Still, the book has lovely passages and terrific set pieces: a backyard barbecue; Mickey’s darting forays between the militia and the Settlement, adolescence and manhood; the long friendship between Gordie and Rex, which Chute beautifully describes: “ . . . he realized how . . . trust between some men, between Rex and himself for instance, is a state of freefall. A state of perfect grace.”
The potential destruction of this trust is at the heart of this ambitious novel, not the lax subplots and tedious jeremiads that consume too many of its pages. The School on Heart’s Content Road contains some of the best writing Carolyn Chute has ever done. She’s a good writer who could be a great one, and in an afterword hints that this book is first of a quintet. I hope it is.
- By: Elizabeth Hand