Home » criticism, Fiction

Voices in the Woods

By (November 1, 2007) No Comment


Joshua Harmon
Starcherone Books, 2007

Vermont shares so smooth a northern border with New York, you could finish their maps with a straight edge and a single stroke. But travel one state over, and you’ll find the Canadian border as complex and cragged as the spider web of wide rivers and narrow lakes that shape it. They are the headwaters of the Connecticut River (“Kwenitekq or Quinatucquet—something like that the native tribesmen called their Great River, speaking so low in their throats”). Here, briefly, was once an independent nation, “The Republic of Indian Stream,” and here is the spiritual home of Joshua Harmon’s haunting novel Quinnehtukqut, the most accomplished debut I’ve read in years.

An unassuming package, Quinnehtukqut’s dull beige cover reproduces a period photograph of a couple of backwoods swells smirking outside a clapboard post office. It looks eerily like a snap from one of those Arcadia collections: Images of [Your Town] drawn from historic post cards and documents. As soon as you open the book and read a few lines, you’ll find Quinnehtukqut to be the opposite of that black and white embalming fluid with which we set our local histories. Here is a whole shelf of books: adventure stories, tearjerker romances, historical curios, post-modern poetry, fairytales. Reading Quinnehtukqut is like dropping a dozen of these books on the sofa next to you (what a friend of mine used to call “full-contact reading”), and skipping from book to book, until it gradually dawns on you that that the same current runs through all of them. The story is the same; only the weather changes.

Harmon is a brave writer, and one of the novel’s great strengths is its daring mix of narrative styles: from a straight third-person which easily shuttles back and forth through time, to haunting impressionistic monologues, to jagged, folkloric nuggets and parallel narratives that creep alongside one another on the page. What’s remarkable about this mixture of methods is how accessible it is. Harmon takes care to provide lots of concrete detail, the “whipchords, puttees, suspenders, crumpled and battered hats” of the old New Hampshire settlers, and the feel of the woods, the “dirt, dirt worn smooth, the twigs ironlike, the spruce bark and frozen pitch.”

The four chapters are organized not linearly but symphonically (as in Anthony Burgess’ overlooked Napoleon Symphony and Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française): the opening agitato dipping quickly in and out of mythic flickers and glimpses of personal history; the second chapter a morendo monologue from a man who can’t convince himself of his own place in history; a stately sostenuto about the final victory of both wild landscape and mortality in the third movement; and an unclassifiable finale in which a pair of women’s stories blend into a standing wave. One is a practical account of the aged Miss Abbott’s attempt to move her entire house from the path of the dam waters due to submerge the valley where she’s lived her life—and where the book’s action has taken place. The other, running line-for-line along the same page, is the slower recounting of Martha Hennessy’s visit to the vanished valley, now become the bed of Lake Francis.

The book moves fast at first. Fragments of history, legend, poetry, journal entries, and short monologues fight one another for page space. In this section especially, large portions of text have been lifted or adapted from histories of New Hampshire, collections of American Folklore, Francis Parkman:

Northward, beyond the lake, ridge above ridge in hazy distance, rose the high mountains which form the Canadian boundary, savage, pathless, unfrequented—because there is nothing to be got by going there: in short, a howling wilderness.

Spaced between retold legends and historical landscapes, the residents of Coos County step forward to tell their portions of a 300-year-long story: King Phillip’s war, the Great Depression, “Old Molly the Indian,” the hurricane of ’38, floods, Vincent Bouchard’s journal, gold prospecting, “the short summer nights blown over with stars.” The major narrative emerging is that of Jimmy Frye, bandit and gold prospector, seducer of women and compatriot of the devil. As one old-timer recounts it:

My grandfather told me how he had heard about Jimmy […] how even his grandfather told him stories of a character he called Jimmy Moonshine, who would come to town with the summer thunderstorms, steal the corn and the livestock, ferment discord among the men, despoil the women, and then vanish under cover of darkness […] There were many hoboes in those years, and while there may well have been a man named Frye who passed through the village at some point, this Jimmy Frye they speak of has never walked the earth except in men’s minds or the stories they tell.

Legends wouldn’t live on if they weren’t re-imagined by new generations, and it’s through young Martha Hennessy that we’re introduced to Jimmy:

No man in this town is as brave. No man as handsome. No man as cunning as he and soon when we leave this godforsaken country forever we will have a large hours in the city with maids and many doors and closets large enough to stand inside.

Martha meets a man she takes to be the legendary Jimmy—”the first time he came to town. Must’ve been only ten or so […] and he called out and said did they breed all the young girls up here this pretty.” Jimmy (or his real-life avatar Samuel) soon leaves for further adventuring, but the impression he’s made on Martha stays with her: “That voice played itself out in my mind every so often, a faint sound like the wind in bare branches.”

Martha’s father, a farmer and trapper, returns from the Great War and shortly falls ill (Gas poisoning? Influenza? We know only as much as Martha knows). In one of the book’s most affecting stretches Martha and her father read stories to one another as he lies fading in bed. Harmon manipulates the narrative masterfully, flashing back and forth temporally to paint a charged picture that only becomes more meaningful once we realize where we are in time.

For example, in one scene, Martha’s mother sits at the kitchen table wondering what to do with herself now that her husband is dead. Harmon voices her grief movingly, but I was taken aback to realize that this scene occurs while Martha’s father is still off in the trenches, out of touch but very much alive. As soon as I began to smile in anticipation of the tearful homecoming described in earlier pages, I came to realize this heartbreaking scene – Martha’s mother’s grief – must have occurred twice, the second time after her husband died unexpectedly at home, supposedly returned to her. That later (earlier) scene, the shadow scene I thought I’d been reading, passes more powerfully for remaining undescribed. Reading one section of the book, I was constantly reminded of another touch point. In this way Harmon gets inside his reader’s skin, creating a world in which his readers feel as though they’re lost in the wood, only to discover they’re not lost at all, just come to the same place from a different angle.

Martha grows up with a wanderlust and confidence that, in the 1910s of her girlhood, would have been thought a strictly masculine preserve. She both is and is not the son her father may have had, the one the people around Idlewilde mourn him by imagining:

A son approaching his own height, a son who would grow into his shoulders [. . .] it seemed to them impossible that he did not exist somewhere among them, this son, that it was not his voice they listened for…

If Quinnehtukqut is a book about how one life story blends into another, it is also about how we blend into new and different selves, how different the various people inhabiting the same body can be, and how differently we’re perceived:

Each of us is a hundred men known and secret even to each other as a crowd in a tavern vying for attention the old man and the fresh boy and yes they moved inside me at times […] All answering to the same name though it meant differently.

The Jimmy who flirted with a young Martha turns out to be real enough, “that old hobo” as the collective calls him. Later in the novel he or someone just like him grows old in a nursing home in Boston in the 1970s.

The letters I wrote to Martha returned to me one by one, stamped in red ink. In the apartment she had rented, another woman now lived. How many times I had passed the door and climbed the stairs beyond. At night, looking up a the lighted windows, I saw this other woman’s shadow move behind the curtains. I did not know if this made me another man.

Fifty years earlier, in a subsequent chapter, Martha and her mother take in work at the local hunting lodge (the lodge itself emerging as a principal character, constantly fighting the wilderness that wants to overtake it) where Martha refuses the attentions of any of the local boys, including the lodge owner’s son, a brash kid in love with her. Her early interest in boys formed around the legend of Jimmy Frye, Martha seems set up to fall for drifters, rebels, self-described explorers:

I looked for you in the face of every man who came to the lodge, every
pair of eyes that met mine while I carried my mother’s steaming trays of
trout and potatoes around the table. And recognized each time that I had
longer to wait. At night I stood by the shore of the lake, listening to
the silence that hid everything inside itself.

Martha ends up seducing “Jimmy” and running away with him to Boston. He gives her a child, then goes off adventuring with (according to him) Admiral Byrd in the Antarctic, though “in his books, Byrd did not mention my name.” Byrd, in the ’30s, “made the headlines every week. We all read the papers, dreaming our own futures somewhere in those printed columns, the black ink rubbing off on our skin.” But Byrd is dead by the time the old man’s story is told and the Eleanor Bolling, like Martha’s valley, has since disappeared under water.

I walked with her along the Charles, my arm about her and the wind in my face. She would name each bird we saw, even the iridescent starling new to her. It came from England on a ship, she said, It has taken over our cities. Before coming here I had only read about it.

As the memories or forgeries of Byrd and Martha collect and detach, rolling along the old man’s frozen stream of consciousness, the reader’s mind lifts and hovers half an inch above the page, anchored but active—this is what the best nonlinear prose is capable of, and this is that makes Quinnehtukqut an unforgettable reading experience.

When Martha’s son, Daniel, comes to that Boston rest home to visit the man he never met, the old man who receives him can’t quite remember his own life any longer, can’t parse it from a fantasy of Admiral Byrd (just as Martha couldn’t separate him from the legend of Jimmy Frye). Details emerge, but what use can they be?

She rode with me in the taxi to South Station. Still neither of us had slept. She rested her head against my shoulder. The glass was smeared with the fingerprints of countless strangers and beyond it I saw nothing but the blurred outlines of objects, buildings and lamp posts and signs. The driver’s eyes glanced backwards in the mirror.

If, at the end of the book, we are left with more questions than answers, they are questions as satisfying as answers. They are questions in the same way that abandoned campsites are questions, or falling-down mansions filled with half-gone finery.

In addition to all this, Harmon has a great facility for evoking the cold beauty of the New England woods. These are forests that, in literature and in life, feel less like Arden then Teuton, and Harmon makes heart-pulling use of fairy tales. The stories that Martha tells her dying father seem so matched to their backdrop that Harmon’s simple narration of Martha’s own life with her mother comes to seem indistinguishable from those eerie fables:

Dusk on an evening early in June. It will rain soon enough, her mother had said. And the well isn’t dry yet. This will make us all feel better. Martha had soaked until the mosquitoes lit on her knees where they poked through the water gray with soap. After that night her father allowed only the basin, and that filled with water from the river or the lake, where daily the mud at the shore grew wider. Hundreds of tiny flies hovered. Weeds stank in dark clumps. Later, she squeezed a cloth over the basin and wiped his forehead, the corners of his mouth, his neck. Listen, he said. One year there came a summer of terrible drought. No rain had fallen for weeks and the farmers believed that their crops would be ruined. Then the minister set a day for the townspeople to gather at the church and pray for rain.

And, from her father’s lips, it’s a fairy tale that follows—one of a guilty father abandoning his own children rather than watching them starve, and the floods of retribution that drown his world. Harmon here is like Charles Ives, overlaying themes that seem like they can’t possibly merge cleanly until they do.

The last section, two stories running along the page like alternating lines of poetry, works better than the same technique attempted by others (Ashbery’s “Lament,” the ‘60s experiments of William Burroughs collected in The Burroughs File), but it’s difficult for anyone to make this work the way it’s supposed to. Even the indulgent reader ends up following only one story at a time (particularly when they’re narrated compellingly, which they are here—and weren’t in Burroughs and Ashbery).

But this is a book to read more than once and, on the second read, the slow finish works well. We come to see connections everywhere—everything from Martha’s coldness to the coldness of the wilderness starts to seem like an objective correlative for something else. The valley flooded with water from the Murphy Dam feels like a metaphor for how it would have been flooded by the future anyway:

It’s got so I don’t know
however long she has carried

who’s coming and who’s going. Or who’s staying. Well, it’ll all be
the place with her, it has forgotten her daily, and whatever lines she

gone soon, Miss Abbott had said. Just another lake for them to
once thought would contain it disappeared after they were drawn. The

float their canoes on and pull trout from
slivers of sun move on the skin of the water.

Lots of slick bestsellers are like mirrors—we go there expecting to find the world as we see it, and we leave flattered and reassured. In this, a far better debut than Typee or Fanshawe, Joshua Harmon has written something both more ambitious and more moving. Strip a mirror down to layers and you’ll be left with sheets of black metal and glass that both reflect imperfectly, the glass transparent and the metal opaque. In the same way, Quinnehtukqut doesn’t instantly reveal its characters and scenes but rather traces their surface again and again, each time against a different background, each time reflecting itself more clearly. It’s in just this way that we collect the lives of dead friends we never got to know well enough, or the way we learn about places we’ve visited over the course of years. Quinnehtukqut is the most impressive debut I can remember. It’s a landscape-sized novel. Once we’ve read it the first time, we can open to any page and find ourselves in the thick of tangled lives. We are a part of those lives to the extent that our own lives belong to our parents’ dreams and warnings, the fairy tales we tell ourselves, the past that forgets us, and the maps of early landscapes in our hearts, the people we love who we wish never left us, the way we leave one place potent with meaning to arrive in another just the same:

Show me what’s changed in the woods. They’re the same woods, she answered. Boston is no different than here, her mother had once told her. You bring yourself with you wherever you go. But you’ll see that only when you’ve been. How would you know? Martha said. You’ve never been there. No, but I’ve been enough different places to know. The sky above you will be the same blue. Some afternoons, he had said, if I forgot myself for a moment, if I let the sound of guns fade and looked out on a landscape yet unmarred by men I could imagine myself here. The yellow grass of our first fall reminding me of harvest and the snow I knew would soon come. Come winter, when all of the out-of-towners can’t drive their cars on our snowy roads, we’ll hitch up the pung and go through the woods.

America’s major publishers have missed an important opportunity and Starcherone books has earned my attention and my thanks.

John Cotter‘s first novel Under the Small Lights, will appear from Miami University Press in 2010. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly and lives in Boston.