December 19, 2008
So much begins with poverty. Carolyn Chute, beginning with her first novel 23 years ago, "The Beans of Egypt, Maine," and now, with "The School on Heart's Content Road," the first in a projected five-novel series, pushes it in our faces. Chute is not in the mincing-words business. She is not in the marketing business. She is in the writing business.
When Democracy allows (even causes) senseless and terrible things to happen to poor people; when institutions (corporations, bureaucracies) take away people's dignity as well as their property and their ability to care for their children, there are consequences.
Suffering deforms - emotionally and physically - children. They seek refuge wherever they can find it. Suffering and injustice deform adults. They can become heartless, even dangerous.
So this is a terrifying book. Because, as in the case of Dr. Frankenstein's monster, we helped to create this world.
"The School on Heart's Content Road" is set in Egypt, Maine, in 2000. It begins and ends with a 15-year-old boy named Mickey Gammon, crushed (body and soul) by the public school system and seeking refuge from the grinding poverty of his half-brother's house.
In that house, a 4-year-old child is dying of cancer - without pain medication because his parents cannot afford it. Social workers and their myriad forms are no good. Mickey does odd jobs for the local militia, a far-right group of 400 Bible-based patriots that a man named Rex runs.
There is another group in town. The Settlement is a far-left group of people living on 900 acres and led by Gordon St. Onge, whom some call "the prophet." He is polygamous.
The Settlement members home-school their children, grow their food, make their clothes, generate their energy (from wind) and live off the great grid in every sense of the term.
Gordon has taken in a 6-year-old girl named Jane whose mother has been arrested for drug possession. Jane has been encouraged by local narcs and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents (nice men with candy) to rat on her mother and other members of the Settlement (especially Gordon). A neighbor is always ready with a tape recorder to document her stories.
This book is at least partially autobiographical, as Chute recently told The New York Times. In the mid-1990s, Chute started a group called the 2nd Maine Militia (also called Your Wicked Good Militia), which meets in the woods behind her house in rural Maine.
Chute told the Los Angeles Times that they were a "no-wing organization," "very right, very left and very shy." Its members believe in the right to bear arms (Chute keeps an AK-47 in her living room) and condemn the influence of big business in American political life. At least one incident in the novel, when Settlement children protest big business in the state capitol carrying kazoos, actually happened in 1996.
So here's Rex and Gordon, right and left, old friends who agree that this modern life no longer suits human nature. They also agree that democracy in America veers perilously close to fascism from time to time. One believes in secession, the other in power, in self-defense. Something's got to give.
Chute is 61. She is poor (writing a novel, even a best-seller, rarely makes you rich or even middle class), living in an unheated house with no running water and an outhouse.
Her writing is raw and strong and vivid, with deep resounding echoes of William Faulkner and Upton Sinclair. Rain doesn't just fall; it comes "smashing down." A dying child's "evaporated monkey-small face turns slowly to the left, toward his father, because he can smell his father, that smell of the great chain store, of its chemically treated fabrics and acres of stock, oceans of stock, with that tidal-wavelike come-and-go-rhythm of stock moving, on sale, big sale, big specials, big buys, the universe of all necessity and heart's content there on display."
Chute doesn't care whether you feel preached at, shouted at, frightened or incriminated. She's too busy getting the voices right, living the lives of her characters. She's a scientist, brilliant and mad, lighting matches under beakers, mixing compounds, breaking words into their smallest divisible parts. It doesn't boil down to politics, this novel. It boils down to humans, who fail to obey even the simplest, clearest laws of thermodynamics, physics, gravity or even chaos theory.