Damp Souls

Tom Vanderbilt

  • Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
    Bloomsbury, 316 pp, £5.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 7475 2266 9
  • The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson
    Bloomsbury, 181 pp, £5.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 7475 2561 7

In the United States, bestselling works of what is now called literary fiction tend to be aggressively regional – think of Jane Smiley’s Iowa, Jane Hamilton’s Midwest or E. Annie Proulx’s Newfoundland. They are literary postcards, nostalgic, often mawkish renderings of some quaint locale. Fulsomely praised as ‘generous’, ‘lyrical’, ‘redemptive’ and ‘luminous’, less Dirty Realism than stonewashed romanticism, they usually extol smalltown America, preferably the sort of place that’s pastoral and virtuous but in which one could still find a level of sophistication and a multiplicity of endearing eccentrics. Local colour works wonders, but since all colour is local (to rework Tip O’Neill), some universal truths should also be present and in the usual form – love, for instance, unrequited, gone wrong, renewed, consummated, young, forbidden, discovered, doomed, forgotten, repressed.

David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars is the latest literary bestseller to hit the US (and, remarkably, the UK). Its surprising success owes much to the strength of its narrative, and something to the dynamics of contemporary bookselling and the vogue of the Pacific North-West. The book got off to a respectable start in hardcover – it was a good ‘Christmas book’ because of its title and woodsy cover art, the author told Publisher’s Weekly – but it was not until it began to win prizes, including the PEN/Faulkner and Barnes and Noble Discover awards, that the book became a real unit-shifter (especially at Barnes and Noble). To criticise it was to incur the charges of élitism and philistinism. The fact that the PEN/Faulkner awards panel included the novelist Charles Johnson, Guterson’s writing instructor – who also provided a puff for the book – did not seem to arouse any concern, but then the chances of finding a judge from the writing-seminar circuit who had no connection with Guterson were quite slim.

Set in Washington State in 1954 on San Piedro, an ‘island of five thousand damp souls’ in the Puget Sound, the novel opens in a small courthouse where a Japanese-American fisherman is on trial for the murder of a white fisherman. We soon learn that the accused, Kabuo Miyamoto, was seeking to regain land (lost in the World War Two internment of Japanese-Americans) from Carl Heine, the victim of the presumed murder. A subplot turns on the unresolved feelings of Ismael Chambers, the editor of a local newspaper, for Hatsue Miyamoto, the accused’s wife. The story is compellingly told, but there’s nothing unusual in the components of the mystery: the author supplies the obvious suspect, and a good list of motives, then offers an even more likely suspect, whose even more plausible motive is gradually revealed in a sequence of flashbacks. Then there is an exhilarating twist to the plot. But good mysteries are everywhere these days, from Smilla to Sophie, so perhaps the roots of Guterson’s success lie in something else.

The O.J. Simpson trial might provide some clue to the novel’s popularity. In simpler times, this story of a tragic killing in a small town would have brought Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to mind. Now, the novel’s appeal may have more to do with our conflicting feelings about the trial and how it should have been conducted. In Guterson there are no lecherous journalists chasing exclusives or high-powered lawyers negotiating film rights. The sessions do not take place under the glare of the national spotlight; there are no charges of institutional prejudice. And a majority of the population doesn’t doubt the verdict. Rather, a handful of local newspapermen watch on quietly as Judge Lew Fielding, ‘a man of high professional standards, a careful and deliberate, exacting judge who held himself to the letter of the law, however soporifically’, presides over an orderly courtroom despite the exigencies of the weather outside. The murder weapon, blood included (we know the type, but alas, this is before the age of DNA testing), has been retrieved. The prosecutor and the defendant, both good island men, address their witnesses by their first names. Rather than holding press conferences, the island’s Japanese residents sit quietly in the back rows. And the verdict clears the way for healing, not division.

This is all a function of what one critic called the ‘moral order’ inherent in the book. The inhabitants of San Piedro have a solid sense of community, protected from outside influence save for a few summer vacationers from Seattle. Everything seems to be just as it should be, and everyone is firmly in their place. Characters are described as having come from one ethnic ‘stock’ or another. The fishermen are rendered in the stoic, grimly foreboding, 19th-century tones of Winslow Homer: ‘silent-toiling, autonomous gil-netters’. The women, who never go out to sea, are strong and rational, as we learn in this Bridges of Madison County-like passage: ‘She understood the happiness of a place where the work was clear and there were fields she could enter into with a man she loved purposefully.’ The Japanese-American characters are (of course) descendants of samurai, trained in the art of kendo, filled with the ‘calm of the geisha’ or ‘noble in appearance.’ The islanders, living in primal deference to the elements, look out at shipwrecks with a ‘grim brand of determinism’. Fate, rather than big government or politically correct classroom curricula or any other modern intrusion, rules these people’s lives. ‘For them,’ Guterson writes, ‘the web of cause and effect was invisible and simultaneously everywhere.’ And again: ‘There was nothing to be done except what could be done.’ The moral order is so pervasive that even a murder is out of the question: Heine, it turns out, died after he was knocked from his boat by the wake of a passing freighter.

In a recent essay, Guterson describes the appeal of islands like San Piedro: ‘In a universe that is infinite and incomprehensible – in a world that is increasingly beyond all control – islands offer definition ... a place whose limiting waters inspire the illusion of a finite order.’ A novel’s appeal may be very similar: it can can take us to ‘a place we invent for our own peculiar purposes’, it can be ‘a place of retreat’, it can ‘simultaneously liberate and confine’. Should it engage with the ‘mainland’ of society or take shelter in simpler narratives? The critic Sven Birkerts suggested recently that, rather than being threatened by electronic media and interactive technology (as he argued in The Gutenberg Elegies), the novel may come to be seen as a refuge from Post-Modern time and culture, an island off the Net. The novel, Birkerts writes, is ‘a mode of surrogate living which most closely approximates what living felt like before technologies began to divide us from ourselves’.

On the other hand, Birkerts worries about the vitality of the novel that retreats from the world, whether that world is wired or not, resorting to the ‘narrowly domestic; using conveniently unmediated small town settings; and turning to the past, either historical or familial’ – what Ian Jack calls the ‘Norman Rockwellisation of the novel’. With most of America living in cities or densely populated suburbs, the turn to small towns in so much recent fiction is striking. What happened to the suburban novel of a generation ago? John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy charted the suburban ascendance more or less as it was happening, and the popularity of those books was perhaps some measure of confidence in the life we were living. Now that suburbia is a place where property values can sink (‘It must mean something to a town, to the local esprit, for its values on the open market to fall. Why else would real estate prices be an index to the national well-being?’ muses Frank Bascombe, heir apparent to Rabbit and the narrator of Richard Ford’s Independence Day) and gangs and drugs are just as plentiful as in the inner city, stories of contemporary suburbia no longer serve our appetite for myth. Allusions to simpler times crop up in everything from the retro white-picket fence homes of ‘new urbanist’ architecture (what Wytold Rybcinski calls ‘family-values architecture’) to the ‘ideal land-scape’ of Fifties sitcom families fondly evoked by Hillary Rodham Clinton in It Takes a Village.

Guterson himself writes gracefully about the simple life:

By October San Piedro had slipped off its summer reveller’s mask to reveal a torpid, soporific dreamer whose winter bed was made of wet green moss. Cars slumped along the mud and gravel roads at twenty or thirty miles and hour like sluggish beetles beneath the overhanging trees. The Seattle people passed into memory and winter savings accounts; stoves were stoked, fires banked, books taken down, quilts mended. The gutters filled with rust-coloured pine needles and the pungent effluvium of alder leaves, and the drainpipes splashed with winter rain.

But all too often the subtlety of language is consumed by the juggernaut of plot. Characters are stiffly one-dimensional, irony or satire need not come knocking, the whimsy of metafiction is kept strictly at bay. Yet to sustain the image of a ‘serious book’ we are given occasional flights of lyric fancy and full-blown excursions to the Big Story, which cinemascopically captures pitched World War Two battles, docudrama scenes in the Japanese internment camps, young love in a sylvan glen, the courtroom interrogation. There’s something blatantly cinematic in the novel’s urgent pacing and methodical flashbacks – less than a quarter of the way into it I began to wonder who was going to play whom in the film version. The novel has given cinema many of its best tricks and, as Calvino wrote in The Uses of Literature, vice versa:

There is a species of novel that survives because its manner of narration, and its themes, do not differ from those of the average film, and aim to satisfy the requirements of the same public, the demands of the same consumer. I am not speaking merely of the série noire, in which exchanges between the cinema and the novel are mutually honest, but of the large sector occupied by the average novel occupied with a certain amount of ‘literary dignity’ and, in the best of cases, some interest of subject matter and a construction based on a well-tried recipe.

So aside from the requisite twists of the mystery genre, there are no surprises in this novel. It demands little from the reader. Instead, it ‘gives’ us very much: maritime lore, the forensic lab, and a previously underplayed historical event that will, with luck, become a national obsession (as with Dances with Wolves). One critic praised the book for retrieving ‘an important part of the country’s history’, as if that kind of therapy were part of the novel’s function. The big issues – racism, for example – are dealt with in the earnest but archly simplistic tones of Hollywood: ‘I’m an American,’ the accused says to the victim in a moment of high sea-going drama. ‘Just like you or anybody. Am I calling you a Nazi, you big Nazi bastard?’ Dilemmas of the soul are wrapped up in a quick flourish of good solid pioneer pragmatism. For Ishmael Chambers, the newspaperman harbouring the ghosts of the war and the ache of unrequited love, the answers are simple: ‘You should get married and have some children.’ It may have been reverentially received but Snow Falling on Cedars is less literature than a ‘sea yarn’, as one character says in the novel, ‘but a ripping good one’.

Simpler pleasures are to be found in Guterson’s collection of stories, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind. Set mostly in the early Seventies in the suburbs (and beyond) of the North-West, the ‘country’ in the title might refer as much to the US, just getting ‘back from Vietnam’, as to the fields and forests in which these stories often roam. Like Updike’s Rabbit Redux, the collection’s finest story, ‘Day of the Moonwalk’, contrasts the mythic drama of Neil Armstrong’s first lunar steps with the quotidian round. The mood and setting, too, recall Updike, as the narrator’s family, managers of a ‘small, sand-wracked motel’ in Oregon, move to the ‘scabbed and ravaged earth’ of a tract housing development in Seattle. Guterson elegantly evokes both the unease and the promise offered in the American desire for geographical mobility and reinvention: along with the freedom comes isolation and evanescence – neighbours are not cultivated because it is known that they will someday ‘move on’. The open road draws the family towards a freshly erected Shangri-la, the process fraught with the realisation that ‘the passions that had thus far held us together might be for ever rearranged under the sky of a distant city.’

All across the landscape of these stories, ‘sad little motel rooms’ with ‘strangers playing lonely rounds of five-card draw’, another epic myth – that of the loss of American innocence – plays itself out. Or perhaps it’s just lost youth, and the repression of memories that impede the passage towards re-invention. In ‘Angels in the Snow’, a character denies that an adolescent episode in a Las Vegas motel has anything to do with the present: ‘I’m grown up. I’m a different person.’ In ‘Arcturus’, the glimpse of a childhood friend in a gas station releases a torrent of memory that is resolved only with the realisation that the star itself is still shining in the sky. And in ‘The Flower Garden’, a young baseball player attempts to go back to the site of an early love: ‘everything else was as it should be, as it had been, but I had no place in it any more.’ For Guterson, the illusion of a calm and lasting natural order either soothes or inflames the pain of nostalgia. Guterson’s writing takes us to a place where, to paraphrase one of his stories, nothing is ever going to change, even though it has changed already.