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Book Review: Graphic the Valley

By (September 20, 2013) No Comment

Graphic the Valleygraphic the valley

by Peter Brown Hoffmeister

Tyrus Books, 2013

 

Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s latest novel, Graphic the Valley, has three parts, two of which are titled “Samson” and “Delilah,” and the book’s publicity apparatus is harping on the whole ‘modern retelling of Samson and Delilah,’ presumably because angles like that tend to be catnip to balky book-reviewers. To the extent that those publicists are pushing a Biblical parallel to Graphic the Valley, they’re just doing their job. To the extent that Hoffmeister himself might think he’s written a modern retelling of the Samson story from the Book of Judges, he’s simply mistaken; it happens – you’d probably be shocked to hear what James Joyce thought he was doing in Ulysses.

Graphic the Valley tells the story of young Tenaya, a Miwok descendant born and raised in shady itinerant camps in Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. He loses his parents early and grows to manhood alone, living mostly off discarded food left behind by bovine tourists. There’s no real ‘modern retelling’ of the Samson story here, despite those section titles (and despite some rather ham-handed tacked-on parallels, like when Tenaya’s paramour, instead of yelling out “Samson! The Philistines are upon you!” yells out “Tenaya! The FBI’s coming!”) and despite any rumors you might have heard on Goodreads.

In part this is almost inevitable. A dozen big-screen movies (starring goyim, of course), a thousand story-time retellings for children, and even a stint as a comic book superhero have considerably sanded the edges of what is in its essence one of the strangest stories in the Old Testament, a fragment of some other literary tradition altogether that just happened to wander into the Torah’s long litany of unrequited lamentation and unprovoked retribution and stands there now smiling and blinking, as surprised as anybody else that it’s somehow become religious canon. The tale of Israelite strongman Samson and his lifelong vendetta against the mean, evil Philistines mostly reads more like a plain adventure story than a chapter in the ongoing saga of Yahweh’s perpetual irritation with His worshippers: Samson kills a lion with his bare hands, tricks and outwits his enemies, rips gigantic armored gates out of their moorings, and slays an entire army equipped only with the jawbone of an ass. He falls under the sexual spell of the woman Delilah, who’s been hired by the Philistines to discover the source of Samson’s incredible strength, which she does by simply asking him. Some of his answers are tricks (although all of them involve her tying him up, the scamp), but the real one – the cutting of his hair will, it turns out, make him as other men – lands him in the hands of the Philistines, who blind and enslave him in their heathen temple. As one last (and typical) favor from Yahweh, eyeless Samson is allowed one final burst of strength sufficient to bring the temple down on all his enemies – killing himself in the process.

It’s lavish-scale operatic stuff, in which a superman favored by a god decides the fate of whole nations. The slightly slovenly bonhomie of the main character aligns him more with Hercules and Gilgamesh and Finn MacCool than it does with hair-shirted party-poopers like Saul and Jacob. It is not a survival-by-wits story; it is not a local-color story; it is most certainly not a dispossession story. It has virtually nothing in common with Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s new novel other than the fact that both stories involve spelunking and both underscore the many pitfalls of heterosexuality.

The irony is that Graphic the Valley is shot through with utterly inimitable ragged little indigenous beauties of its own … raising expectations of a Biblical pastiche only invites a kind of disappointment that this confident, haunting novel wouldn’t otherwise risk. Hoffmeister here refines to razor-sharpness the rhetorical fluency so prominently displayed in his nonfiction (The End of Boys and the thoroughly delghtful Let Them Be Eaten by Bears), creating a sing-song rhythm like something out of the novels of Pete Dexter and Cormac McCarthy. And like Pete Hamill’s Forever, the book aligns hero and setting in elegant if slightly forced ways:

The Valley was in me. The Valley yellow turning to brown, a thousand bears in late fall. I looked down at my hands, the dirty black fingernail ends, and I bit one off. Spit that into the blooming milkweed.

Having lived there his entire life, Tenaya knows the nature and moods of Yosemite Valley like he knows the breath in his own body. He’s a necessarily taciturn man, tending to talk most with his fellow-itinerant friend Kenny, who’s less Park-savvy than Tenaya but more worldly-wise (at least to the extent of sensibly distrusting anything connected with billionaire tyrant Rupert Murdoch). But when he meets pretty young McKenzie, he becomes downright loquacious:

McKenzie set the food down and said, “I should get a picture of that bear. He’s huge.”

I took a bite of burrito and burned my tongue. I said, “She.”

“She?”

“The bear,” I said. “She’s a female.”

“Oh,” McKenzie said. “How do you know?”

“Narrow head,” I said, “and bigger ears.”

“Oh. Well, she’s pretty close to us.”

“Yeah,” I said. “If she came after someone, a social bear like that? What if she wanted our burritos? Have you ever seen a bear rip a car door off its hinges?”

“No,” she said.

“Well, it’s incredible. They’re three times as strong for their weight as humans, so that bear right there is like a 900-pound person who’s not obese. Just muscle strong.”

Graphic the Valley has an abundance of that kind of lean muscle-strength, delivering its frequent nature-observations in carefully-chiseled aphorisms like:

Camp 4 was quiet. A cougar walked through, head down, hoping for an over-fat ground squirrel. The cat leaped the boulder in front of me and moved uphill.

Or:

Warm air came in one night as the seasons wrestled. Then all of the snow disappeared from the Valley floor, and the high country went to patches.

There’s some laboring about the rapacious cluelessness of white-skinned intruders into the Valley. They wear fancy clothes that fit poorly over their pendulous bellies; they mock and belittle the Park’s magnificent wildlife (a glance at the pertinent YouTube videos shows this to be dolefully accurate); they endanger with litter and strip-malls the very glories they’ve traveled to see; and of course they get their history wrong:

I walked down the stone steps and into the main portion of the room. All around me were tables, people on laptops and phones, clicking and talking. Two little girls played checkers. A boy drew in a coloring book. And above all of us, a black-and-white photography exhibit chronicled, “The First Inhabitants: The Miwoks.

I walked underneath these pictures all the way around the room, reading captions of basket weaving and flint knapping, two chiefs’ names and a woman grinding acorns. All the pictures were of Yosemiti, not Miwoks.

Tenaya’s pointless subsisting is complicated by that aforementioned bear-ignorant McKenzie, who’s signaled as our Delilah stand-in mainly by her penchant for saying things like “Mostly I get what I want.” But Tenaya’s encounters with her – and through her with law enforcement authorities eager to remind him that it’s illegal to live long-term in the wilds of the Park – have nothing of the over-the-top charge of the Samson story, nor do they seem to aspire to it. In the place of super-judgeship, Hoffmeister has given us a story of battered purity and impossible aboriginal stubbornness. It’s a purely, bleakly American story, far from salt-barrens of Gaza and all the stronger for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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