Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Book Report; "Houseboating in the Ozarks"

I first got to know Gary Forrester as the fictional character, "Skidmore" in Philip Deaver's wonderful collection of short stories, Silent Retreats, (winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction.) I got interested in Deaver's collection of stories (which came out in 1988) because he grew up in Tuscola, just seven miles up the road from the little town, Arcola, in which I grew up in central Illinois. Although Forrester, Deaver and I all graduated from high school in 1964, I didn't know them until recently. It was my loss. (More about Deaver in a couple of months when he comes to my house to meet with our reading group to discuss his new book of poetry, How Men Pray, and a short story, Lowell and the Rolling Thunder Review, recently published in The Kenyon Review.)

We (I'm not trying to be presumptious here, putting myself in the same category as Forrester and Deaver, but I have to tell you why these books interest me) all left central Illinois soon after high school. I returned here 15 years later, and here I still am; living a rather dull life. Deaver lives in Florida where he teaches English at a small college and writes fiction and poetry, for which he has won acclaim. It is hard to describe Forrester; for one thing because I do not know him all that well, despite having read about him (as Skidmore) 15 years ago, and having gotten to know him personally in the last year.

What I do know about Forrester is that he has lived an adventurous life and he is enormously talented. Since he left the 'cola's some 40 years ago, he has lived in South America (to avoid the draft in the Vietnam era;) on an American Indian reservation where he worked in a legal aid clinic, became an expert on Indian law and wrote a treatise on Indian law; lived in Australia for many years, where he taught aboriginal law, worked in a legal aid clinic, and was involved in a long-running libel lawsuit that eventually brought down the government; wrote music and played in a bluegrass band that won awards in Australia and the United States; managed an organic farm in the middle of the Wombat Forest; taught at the University of Illinois law school; practiced law in a plaintiff-oriented class-action law firm and lived a colorful personal life (the details of which I will not try to recite because I am not sure how much of what I believe I know is fact and how much is fiction and even if I told the parts I am pretty sure are factual, you would think they are fictional)

Forrester's latest exploit is writing a book, Houseboating in the Ozarks, a book of fiction, although readers will be forgiven for believing that there are some hard facts behind the veneer of make-believe. In mid-October, our reading group read the book and then discussed it with Forrester participating by speaker phone from Wellington, New Zealand, to which he has recently emmigrated, to again work in a legal clinic.

The book is an extraordinary book, in my opinion. Not "extraordinary" as a first book or "extraordinary" as a book set in the Midwest, but "extraordinary" as in "unusual merit." It would be a good book,well written and interesting to read without the spiritual aspects, but what makes it extraordinary is the religious element. The book is as hard to describe as its author. So, I'm going to take the easy way and simply quote from a synopsis Forrester wrote for his agent (a copy of which he recently sent me to share with my reading group):

General comment: Houseboating in the Ozarks (“Houseboat”) is in a “framed” format, with the main story sandwiched between a fictional editor’s foreword and afterword. The body of the novel is told in third-person limited. It is the story of a nine-day circular journey through the heart of the American Midwest. Its theme is nicely stated in the words of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

First Chapter: We learn that the protagonist is one Christian Leonard Hooker, 57 years of age, and that his existential musings are a commingling of the sacred and the profane. The table is set with characters we will see again from time to time. Chris & family travel from central Illinois to Chicago, where Chris’s wife Kazzie and her daughter board a plane for Australia. Chris tries to connect with his perceptive son Sean, but it becomes clear that they are talking to each other from parallel universes. Through flashbacks (triggered by a horrible car crash that Chris passes along the way), we are introduced to Chris’s out-of-wedlock daughter Jishel, her new-age mother Miriam, and Chris’s old pal from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Cheeto High Bear.

Following a Wizard-of-Oz walking spree along Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s Loop, where Chris introduces his nine-year-old twins (Razor and Sharon) to his shoplifting skills, he and the twins spend the night at his youngest sister Carol’s place in a wealthy Chicago suburb. An ancient photo of his now-ancient parents haunts him as he drifts off to sleep.

In this first chapter, we have established several common denominators that will link the various stages of the journey – weird car crashes; indigenous spirituality; alienation from conventional religion; an obsession with the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball team; failures to communicate; bluegrass music; and nostalgia for times that cannot be clearly recalled and for people who were never what they seemed.

Second Chapter: After breakfast, Chris and the twins head back home for the start of their real journey. Along the way, they stop at the scene of yesterday’s crash and pick up a fellow traveler – a “Dopey the Dwarf” doll that will take on a role similar to that of “Wilson” the soccer ball in the Tom Hanks movie Castaway.

Before departing on the main journey, Chris takes Razor and Sharon to church, where he indulges his preaching fantasy, Walter Mitty-style. Chris then purloins a few dvd’s from the local Blockbuster (for the car’s dvd-player), and they are on their way. The table is set with some family history as Chris and the kids roll along the “hillbilly highway” of Chris’s ancestry – but the kids aren’t very interested in this old stuff. Still, it gets in Chris’s head, and through the third-person limited narrator, we see the basis for Chris’s childhood pain and existential angst.

Not surprisingly, there is another car crash, and although Chris acquits himself somewhat better this time (helping to rescue the victims), it is becoming clear that he is not armed with a normal capacity for feeling what others are feeling. They pass the Cahokia Indian Mounds outside St. Louis, which leads to a flashback to Italy, where Chris behaved like an idiot not that long ago. Francis of Assisi is introduced into the story – he will play a bigger role later as Chris’s faux epiphany unfolds.

They set up camp for the night near the Meramac Caverns. For some reason, Chris is deliriously happy. He tells Razor & Sharon a long night-time story about his crazy parents’ visit to Australia, years ago, when Chris & Kazzie & kids lived back-to-nature in a remote eucalypt forest.

Third Chapter: In the morning of the third day, Chris & the kids go through the Meramac Caverns, somewhat in the style of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Razor and Sharon annoy the hell out of everybody, to Chris’s delight.

After packing up tent & sleeping bags, they see an Australian hitch-hiker and pick him up. He’s o.k., but when they finally drop him off in Rolla, Missouri, he shows them a gun that gets Chris all shook up. He flashes back to his last hitch-hiker, a Lakota woman from South Dakota named Brenda Which Woman, who also had a weapon with her. This aside about Brenda Which Woman, danger, and sex bridges Chris’s remembrances of Miriam (in Chapter One) and Chris’s Aboriginal lover Yolanda Possum (who has already made a cameo appearance and who figures more prominently later).

After dropping off the Australian hitch-hiker, Chris and the twins travel on to the Ozarks. Their first stop is Branson, a real hell-hole of American schmaltz. They get out of Branson asap and go to the houseboat rental office.

Their first evening on the houseboat goes well – family singing, a barbecue on the back of the boat, a dvd. But after going to sleep, Chris wakes up in the middle of the night to pee and discovers that hurricane-force winds are pounding the lake around him. To make matters worse, the boat has become untied from the shore. Chris is scared shitless in the lightning and thunder around him.

After calming down Sharon, who woke during the storm, he tries to figure his way out of this predicament. Eventually, he climbs naked into the turbulent water, suffers an injury, but finally succeeds in re-tying the boat to the shore. The boat starts to rock like a cradle; Chris thinks sadly about his mother and father, years ago, and drops off to sleep.

Fourth Chapter: The morning is peaceful. They get breakfast and a newspaper at a nearby marina, and learn that the storm had been truly hellacious. This perturbs Razor, who slept through it all, and he pouts magnificently.

They spend the rest of the day having a Huck Finn-style adventure on Table Rock Lake. As the kids operate the houseboat, Chris tends to his sore back on the couch. He reminisces about two of his older children, far away in Australia, and that memory segues to a truly horrific episode in Chris’s Australian life, where a married lover of his was murdered by her husband. At the end of these bundle-of-joy flashbacks, Chris counts on one finger the number of friends he has in the world, and even that friend (a Florida novelist who has modeled his most successful character – a rakish sociopath – on Chris) is more fantasy than fact. Maybe Chris’s remoteness from normal human feeling is a protective device that he’s developed over the years to deal with harsh realities.

Still, there are the twins. He clearly loves them to death. They find a tiny island, and continue Huck Finning. When the stars come out, one by one, they lie down on the island and try to imagine how small they are. For all three of the Hookers – Christian, Razor, and Sharon – the wonderful “great mystery” (Wakan Tanka) of existence is profoundly felt, even if not understood.

The kids go off to sleep in their sleeping-bags on the island, and Chris wades out to the houseboat to work pro bono on a legal brief for his old Aboriginal lover, Yolanda Possum, whose estranged son Cuffy is on death row in Florida. Chris writes down the pros and cons of Cuffy’s defense on a yellow legal pad, and recalls his time with Yolanda, first in the outback, later in Melbourne. Chris and Yolanda had nearly brought down an entire government as a result of Chris’s semi-ethical legal representation of her in a sexual harassment case.

When Chris finishes working on the brief, he watches the old Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep movie, Bridges of Madison County, and gets annoyed by the phoniness of it all. It has become clear through these first four chapters that Chris is, in some ways, more at home in movies than he is in real life.

Fifth Chapter: More calm after the storm. More Huck Finning. Chris gets lost briefly in the middle of the lake, but works it out and they head back to the marina to return the houseboat. Chris and the twins rejoin Dopey in the Windstar and head for Independence, Missouri. They stop for lunch at Smith’s Restaurant in Collins, Missouri, where Chris catches up on the Cardinals’ scores. He phones Sean back in Illinois to check on the pets, and all are fine. Chris drifts off into memories of Sean and pets generally – Chris has not been a good custodian of family animals over the years.

The main story in this flashback is concerned with zebra finches, and in particular a female who, for a time, occupied a miner’s canary niche in Chris’s consciousness as a “main squeeze” between human lovers. This tale-within-a-tale about the zebra finch is as close as Houseboating in the Ozarks gets to overt eroticism. For the most part, a lot of sex has obviously taken place off-stage, but it doesn’t make it to the main story.

When Chris and the kids get to his sister’s home in Independence (a different sister, Lauren), his aging mother Alma Ruth is there too. She is suffering from Alzheimer’s and breast cancer. Still, something in Chris’s weird chemistry keeps him from showing any warmth. She has brought with her a stack of family photograph albums, her most prized possessions that she will leave to her adult children. But Chris disappoints by not being very interested.

What he is interested in is an old scrapbook, somewhere in the mix, that shows him on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation with his old pal Cheeto High Bear. It turns out that Cheeto had died under mysterious circumstances involving a Lakota spirit, known as the Buffalo Calf Woman, and the sacred pipe of the tribe. As Chris is showing these old photos of Cheeto to the twins, he comes as close as we have seen him to genuine sadness for another. It was Cheeto, he tells Razor & Sharon, who taught him to play bluegrass.

Lauren is furious with Chris because of his remoteness from their mother. But Chris is unmoved, or at least appears to be. Before going to bed, he phones Kazzie in Australia. He catches up on her stories about his old Australian friends and his older kids who are still living there. The world seems huge and alien. In the words of the Bob Dylan song, “everything is broken.”

Sixth Chapter: Chris goes for a walk in Independence, and gets into a one-on-one basketball game with a local high-school player. Chris wins the game by throwing his weight around, and can’t resist bragging about it to Lauren over breakfast. Naturally, she becomes even more pissed off with him. She gives him tickets to an amusement park known as “Oceans of Fun,” just to get rid of him and the kids for the day. Chris and the kids have a great time there, and it’s becoming clearer that Chris’s true comfort zone is at the emotional-maturity level of a nine-year-old.

That night, Lauren’s husband tries to engage Chris in some heavy-duty discussion about existentialism and mysticism, but Chris won’t bite. He does, however, look through some more of Alma Ruth’s photo albums, and gets a little sad as he goes through his baseball card collection from the 1950s. So long ago.

Seventh Chapter: Chris sneaks out of Independence, with the kids, in the morning. They are now headed back across Missouri towards Illinois. They stop for lunch at a rat-hole known as New Florence, Missouri, which gets Chris flashing back again to Italy and the real Florence. He was at his anti-intellectual worst in Florence, pouting because of the endless throngs of American tourists, while Kazzie & the kids went the Uffizi, the Duomo, the Galleria dell’Accademia, etc.

After lunch, they move along the highway to St. Louis, Chris solipsistically listening to his own recordings on the car’s stereo as the kids watch a dvd, What About Bob?, that reminds them of their dad. When they get to their St. Louis hotel, they can’t get in for a while because a woman is standing on the top floor waiting to jump to her death. After that crisis is over, they check in. Chris is at his worst, parking in a disabled spot, then laying the foundation for a lawsuit against the hotel when Razor gets a speck of window glass in his foot (left-over glass from the suicide attempt).

The big event of this seventh day of the trip is taking in a St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball game. Razor & Sharon aren’t thrilled with this, but they are nice and indulge Chris’s neurosis. Before the game, they have dinner at a TGI Friday’s, and while they are waiting for their food, Chris demonstrates an amazing prowess at drawing pirate ships on the paper table cloth. Razor and Sharon are amazed, because they didn’t think Chris could draw anything, and these pirate ships are truly magnificent. Chris pontificates about Jackson Pollack and Philip Guston.

The Cardinals lose the game in the surreal lights of Busch Stadium, as Chris glows in the crowd and re-lives childhood moments for a couple of hours. Razor and Sharon busy themselves collecting plastic souvenir cups that fans are discarding.

Back in the hotel room after the game, the kids go to sleep and Chris mixes the sacred and profane in dramatic fashion by first reading the Gideons Bible, then turning on the television for some soft porn. He doesn’t get worked up, however, and looks at the porn as if he were a high school scientist dissecting a frog. He falls asleep obsessing about death – his, his kids’, Cheeto High Bear’s – mumbling some Dylan Thomas to try to make some sense of it all.

Eighth Chapter: Next morning, a Saturday, Chris takes the kids to the zoo. The St. Louis Zoo has been a Hooker staple for generations, and Alma Ruth’s scrapbook was filled with photos going back as far as 1904, when Alma Ruth’s grandparents posed for a photo with Geronimo at the World’s Fair (now the site of the Zoo). Chris and the kids visit puffins and penguins and scrawny kangaroos – the kangaroos are depressing, and totally unlike the robust specimens that used to roam freely around them in their eucalypt forest. They mate shamelessly in front of Chris and the twins, and for a moment Chris is back in his frog lab – the kangaroos might as well be the same actors Chris watched the night before in his hotel room.

They have to get to their campground at Pere Marquette (across the border in Illinois) before nightfall. Chris had been to Pere Marquette as a young boy, fifty years ago, and he tries to walk around with Razor & Sharon to show them his old stomping grounds, but absolutely everything he remembered is gone, replaced by new stone buildings and fancy facilities. After setting up their tent, they drive back along the Mississippi to the strange little town of Elsah, a Christian Scientist haven, which connects dots back to Chris’s “hillbilly highway” where Christian Scientists played a big role in the Hookers’ ancestral history. Chris’s recollection includes a few hints about Quincy, Illinois, which is up-river tomorrow (Sunday). Something big is going to happen there, so the stage is set for that moment.

Back in their tent, Chris and the kids draw and listen to jazz on a St. Louis station, especially John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. (Chris, naturally, draws pirate ships, the same one over and over again.) After the kids go to sleep, Chris recollects an Australian courtroom scene where he lost custody of his oldest children, making a fool of himself by appearing pro se against a brilliant barrister. The turning point in the case was the production of his Florida friend’s novel, Groin Damage, in which the Hooker-based character is a womanizing rogue who would not be a good candidate for single-fatherhood. Chris recalls how humiliated he was – but he deserved it.

Ninth Chapter: After breakfast at Pere Marquette, Chris and the kids climb a hill along the Mississippi River, which prompts a friendly debate. The kids think the hill and the surrounding forest are reminiscent of their home in the Australian eucalypts; Chris thinks it’s more like Cinque Terre in Italy, where Chris wandered alone in the hills as Kazzie and kids swam in Monterosso al Mare.

Then they head to Hannibal, through Illinois backwaters, and sure enough there is another car crash, this one resulting in an animal fatality. Chris borrows a shovel and buries the dog, complete with a dramatic Franciscan homily to his captive audience.

In Hannibal, they pay homage to the Huck Finn tourist traps, and also to the home of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, a Hannibal native. Sharon starts wailing away with the theme song from “Titanic,” to Chris’s amusement. Then it’s on to Quincy, Illinois, one of Chris’s childhood homes. First, he discovers that he does not have a Franciscan connection after all, because his old grade school was named for a different St. Francis. His whole Italian fantasy is dismantled.

Then they decide to take in a mid-day Mass at the old chapel of his youth, and Chris has the long-anticipated epiphany as he walks under a gigantic gothic mural of the face of Jesus, the monstrous image that was etched into his nine-year-old soul.
As with most of Chris’s big-time moments, he quickly settles down. Chris is a frustrating protagonist – just when he is on the verge of discovering something important, he withdraws, over and over again. He almost wills that his big moments pass him by.

Epilogue: After completing the circular journey to home, Chris goes to Chicago once again to pick up Kazzie and his step-daughter, who have returned from Australia. Everything is lovey-dovey on the way downstate, but sure enough, there is another car crash, this one the weirdest of all, involving a cocaine-induced suicide in a corn-field by one of the drivers. Kazzie shields the twins’ eyes from the horrible scene.

Life settles back down, and one day Chris strolls across the street for pre-Mass confession. At first he wonders what the hell he’s doing in the confessional, but the priest talks him into staying, and Chris manages to think up a sin worth confessing. It is the death of the woman he’d had the affair with back in Australia, the woman whose husband killed her. He knows that he was responsible for that, even though he didn’t pull the trigger, and he says so. The priest forgives him and imposes an unusual penance – just to stare at the large crucifix behind the altar. Chris does so, and he sees there a mystical connection with everything and everyone in his life. All of the characters who have appeared in this novel come together in the outstretched icon, and Chris finds himself strangely at peace. But the final paragraphs of the novel suggest that, as always, this peace will only last for a short time. Moments later, Chris is unimpressed with the reading from the gospel, that Jesus was tested like the rest of us in every way, except sin. “Some test,” says Christian Leonard Hooker. “Some test.”

To which I can only say, "Some insight!"


Debra Hope said...

Sheeeeet . . . in the words of Congressman Clay on "The Wire". I've been contacting my high school classmates to make a web site for our 40-year reunion next summer and have heard wilder, crazier tales than all that. And, almost without exception, they appear to have turned out to be an amazing bunch of people.

Amishlaw said...

Well, here in the Midwest, life just isn't as exciting as it is in places like Lancaster County, PA.

philip said...

I think it is instructive who all is NOT on Forrester's hysterically happy distribution of the review. The new baseball book is hitting the shelves now, and Forrester's in that, too, for all his fans. Scoring From Second: Writers on Baseball, U. of Nebraska Press, Philip F. Deaver, editor.