Above the Waterfall

This week I read my second Ron Rash novel of the year, Above the Waterfall. I got through it in two days—it's excellent. 

Like most of Rash's fiction, Above the Waterfall takes place in the western North Carolina mountains, but unlike his historical novels Serena, One Foot in Eden, and The Cove, this story takes place in the present: a horribly real, recognizable present. This is the Appalachia of dependence—on distant relations to care for the children of failing families, on big-city resort developers and tourist dollars, on chemicals like painkillers, pot, and meth.

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Les, a 51-year old Sheriff on the verge of retirement, and Becky, a middle-aged park ranger and Les's sometime romantic attachment, narrate the story in alternating chapters of present and past tense. Becky survived a school shooting as a girl and is still haunted by it in her mid-forties. She tries to dull the memories of the tragedy, her permanently disrupted family life, and her difficulty forming relationships by retreat into the wilderness and meditation on the beauty of the world. A devotee of Gerard Manley Hopkins, her chapters brim with his kind of allusive, fragmentary poetry as she pieces together her memories with her present struggles, particularly her difficult feelings for Les and the pain of a recently failed relationship with another nature lover, a man who turned out to be an eco-terrorist. 

While Les is an artist too—a painter of watercolors—his career in law enforcement has imparted to his narration a directness that sits uneasily with his artistic inclinations. After decades arresting drug addicts and wife beaters, identifying corpses, and bearing bad news to the parents of meth-addicted children, his matter-of-factness even seems like a coping mechanism, as if he can only deal with the horrors he sees by describing them without polish.

What more might we recover if open to it? Perhaps even God.
— Above the Waterfall

What unites Les and Becky, other than a brief fling, an interrupted love affair, is an elderly man named Gerald. Becky has struck up a friendship with Gerald who, bereft of his wife and only son, lives alone on ancestral land abutting a new but struggling mountain resort. Gerald's meth-addicted nephew takes advantage of his generosity every chance he gets. While Becky tries to help Gerald however she can, Les, pestered by the resort's owner, has to try to persuade Gerald not to poach the trout living in the resort's stretch of the creek that flows through both properties. 

The morning after an altercation in the resort parking lot that almost sends Gerald to the morgue, scores of fish wash up on the banks of the creek—poisoned with kerosene dumped into the stream above a waterfall where, according to Gerald, now rare speckled trout have returned. Gerald insists he's innocent, and Becky takes his side. Les, juggling the resort's problems and a harrowing series of meth busts, is just trying to keep the peace during his last days on the job. It's not enough.

This is my new favorite from Rash. What gripped me in my old favorite, One Foot in Eden, were the strongly drawn relationships—between the young couple at the beginning of the book, between the couple and a roguish neighbor, between the couple and their son many years later—and the threats that tested them—betrayal, adultery, lies, murder. Above the Waterfall shares these strengths but outdoes One Foot in Eden. With its cast of middle-aged characters, each of whom harbors hurts and secrets, each of whom struggle to overcome past sins and earn forgiveness, and with its setting in a dying world, this novel adds a thick layer of poignancy and theologically inflected melancholy. It moved me, and it made me think.

Above the Waterfall is a powerful portrait of a world in which all are guilty and the law is inadequate to mend such brokenness. It depicts a world in need of redemption, and Rash suggests, that redemption is available if the sinners just look for it. In Becky's words:

The next morning as I'd hiked out, I started to step over a log but my foot jerked back. When I looked on the other side, a copperhead lay coiled. Part of me not sight knew it was there. The atavistic like flint rock sparked. Amazon tribes see Venus in daylight. My grandfather needed no watch to tell time. What more might we recover if open to it? Perhaps even God.

Unknown Soldiers

Last week I reviewed the Finnish film Talvisota (The Winter War) for Historical Movie Monday. At the time I had just started reading a novel taking place a year and a half after those events: Väinö Linna's Tuntematon sotilas, or Unknown Soldiers in its most recent English translation. I finished it earlier this week. It's one of the best war novels I've ever read.

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Unknown Soldiers follows a company of Finnish machine gunners through the Continuation War, from the beginning in the summer of 1941 to ceasefire in September 1944. The Finns coordinated their invasion of Soviet Russia with the German invasion, Operation Barbarossa, making the Finns ostensible German allies though they were never fully incorporated into the Axis. The goal was to recapture land taken from Finland by the Russians during the Winter War and occupy other territory to be used for postwar bargaining following German victory. 

None of this matters to the characters in Linna's novel. Not really. They know about most of this political background and occasionally discuss it, but their war is earthy, small-scale, and intensely personal. They are less concerned with Hitler's eventual success against Stalin than with how to handle the weight of a machine gun while marching, how to get enough to eat, how to make some extra cash while the war keeps them from home, how to keep out of the way of officers, and how to stay alive.

The novel begins and ends with the war. After a brief introduction to most of the major characters—there is no single "main" character—the machine gun company assembles and boards trucks for the front. They don't know where they're going or why at first, and a brief passage on God's destruction of a patch of forest through a wildfire is the last bit of omniscience we'll get until the very end. We experience the fog of war with the characters, seldom knowing any more than they do and taken by surprise just as often as they are. 

The characters are wonderfully drawn, and have apparently become bywords for particular kinds of people in Finland. Linna ranges up and down the chain of command, giving us moments with everyone from the company commander to new privates who arrive at the front a few years in. Lieutenant Lammio, a potential martinet but otherwise harmless, becomes company commander after the respected previous commander is killed just a few days into the war; in his new position, his negative traits come to the fore. Ensign Kariluoto, another officer, is naive and detached and has the novel's only real love story, budding from his infatuation with Sirkka, a hometown girl. There's Hietanen, a bluff, good-humored jokester who is nevertheless painfully shy around women, and Vanhala, a giggler, both of whom sober up over the next three years, especially as they rise to positions of leadership and find themselves tested. Lehto is aloof, a gruff, tough fighter, and Määtä, a short, quiet man, never shirks from hauling his squad's machine gun, quietly earning the respect of every man in the company. Lahtinen is a communist sympathizer who, like most Marxists, annoys his friends by interjecting mindless revolutionary formulae into ordinary smalltalk. Honkajoki is an eccentric trying to build a perpetual motion machine and who carries a bow and arrows. Mäkilä, the company quartermaster, is obsessively stingy with the men's gear: "He kept the shelves in impeccable order," Linna tells us, "stocked with all the finest equipment, unmarred by any worn-out items—which he distributed to the company." 

The novel is also, I should point out, wryly funny.

My two favorite characters were Rokka and Koskela. Antero "Antti" Rokka is an older man—in his early- to mid-thirties—a husband and father, a veteran of the Winter War, and a refugee from Kannas, part of the Finnish territory taken by the Russians. He has the most personal stake in the success of the invasion, and only when it becomes clear, in the last quarter of the book, that he'll never see his old farm again is his chipper, folksy demeanor shaken. He has no time for formalities and routinely offends superiors with a knowing "Lissen here." He is also the best soldier in the company, never shrinking from combat, and, in one famous episode, ambushing and wiping out a platoon of more than fifty Russian soldiers with just his submachine gun. (This incident, far from being a proto-Rambo bit of action, is based on an actual incident in which a soldier named Viljam Pylkäs gunned down over eighty Russians.) By the end of the novel, when he's one of the only major characters left, I really dreaded for his safety.

Koskela, on the other hand, is an officer who achieved his rank through merit, during the Winter War. He's strong, silent ("quiet Koski" is a nickname used a few times throughout), courageous, leads by example, loved by his men—all the qualities of a Greek hero without the arrogance or ostentation. As a leader, he also sets himself apart through the crucial ability to know what matters and what doesn't, an ability Lammio, who tries to court martial Rokka at one point, lacks. When leadership of the company finally devolves onto Koskela at the end of the book, as the Finns retreat from Russia and face encirclement, Koskela acts quickly and decisively and his men follow. It's a really stirring portrait of manhood and leadership.

Linna also has a lot to say about courage, but shows what courage really means in modern war. For every death-defying one-man charge on an enemy bunker by Koskela there are two or three small moments borne of split-second decisions by men forced into a corner: Lahtinen staying behind with a machine gun while his buddies evacuate wounded men, or Hietanen finding almost accidental courage in the face of a Russian tank attack: 

It was as if his entire consciousness had been frozen. It refused to consider the significance of these angry blasts, as if shielding itself from the terror such considerations would induce. Hietanen darted quickly behind the upturned roots.
Just then he heard Rokka's voice yelling, "Now shoot like hell!"
Hietanen was panicked and trembling with anxiety. The urgency ringing in Rokka's cry struck his over-excited consciousness as a warning of some new, unknown danger. Then he realized that the call was intended for the others.
It occurred to him he did not know if the mine was functional or not. He didn't know anything about it except that it was supposed to explode under pressure. It was a little late for sapper training, however. The time was now or never.
A vision of the tank tracks rolling beneath their fenders flashed through his mind. Right there ... right there ... And then he threw. The weight of the mine made aiming next to impossible, and a kind of prayer-like wish flickered through Hietanen's consciousness as he hurled it. . . . Only then did the precariousness of his own position suddenly dawn on him. Would the tree base be enough to protect him from the force of the blast? He sank down behind it, opened his mouth and pressed his hands against his ears.
Two seconds later, it was as if the pressure of the whole world suddenly descended upon him. He didn't experience the explosion as a sound, but rather as a numbing, thudding blast
and then his consciousness went dim.
When it returned, he saw that the vehicle was still, titled slightly to one side. . . . He just lay there, looking back and forth at the tank, then at the men, who were yelling at him, "Yes, Hietanen! Woo-hoo! Bravo, Hietanen!" The praise was all wasted, however; Hietanen couldn't hear a thing.

All the danger, brutality, humor, courage, excitement, dread, horror, irony, and businesslike slogging mirror the war and Finland's role in it. It's excellent.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source:  SA-kuva , the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source: SA-kuva, the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

I could say more about the plot, but the plot doesn't really matter. The war is, for the characters, a string of violent incidents that gradually winnows and thins the ranks, and that's what Linna, who lived through the Continuation War himself, shows us. He presents military life and war unromantically, as ceaselessly hard work with limited resources, work that can turn deadly with no warning. By the end of the war, even evacuation by ambulance isn't safe. The much-ballyhooed "random" deaths of George R.R. Martin's characters have nothing on Unknown Soldiers, and these soldiers' deaths are the more pitiful when they come because we care so much about them.

Unknown Soldiers has a well-deserved place in the pantheon of great war literature. It has the grim, clear-eyed detail of All Quiet on the Western Front and the sense of sheer, exhausting labor of The Naked and the Dead. But the novel Unknown Soldiers reminded me of most was Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn. Like Linna, Marlantes was a veteran of the war he wrote about and based his novel on his own experiences. Like Unknown Soldiers, Matterhorn takes a worm's-eye view of the conflict, bringing the reader into close quarters with a large cast of characters for hundreds of pages. And it's worth the trip.

Closing notes

Linna published his novel in 1954. It was first translated into English as The Unknown Soldier in 1957, and again in 2015 by Liesl Yamaguchi, which is the version I read. I neither speak nor read Finnish, but I understand this new translation is more faithful to the original than the first English version. Yamaguchi undertakes the thankless task of communicating the many local dialects and accents of Finnish, and mostly succeeds; Rokka's woodsy twang, to give one example, is instantly recognizable, though some of the others' slangy talk is distracting.

There have been three film adaptations: in 1955, a Finnish classic that airs every December on Finnish Independence Day; in 1985; and again in 2017, a version shot using natural light that looks strikingly beautiful. The 1955 original is available in its entirety on YouTube. The newest version is not apparently available on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere yet, but here's the trailer and a clip of Rokka's one-man massacre of that Russian platoon.

Gringos, by Charles Portis

Charles Portis is one of my favorite authors. He's most famous for True Grit, which is a magnificent novel, but he's also written four other less well-known and appreciated novels. The most recent (published in 1991) is Gringos.

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Gringos has a lot in common with Portis's other novels. Like True Grit and The Dog of the South, it's the story of an Arkansas native in exile. Like Norwood, the protagonist finds himself falling in with all kinds of colorful characters and a certain amount of danger he's not really prepared for. Like Masters of Atlantis, the esoteric and occult figure prominently.

The main character is an American living in the Yucatan, where he gives guided tours of the jungle and Mayan ruins and occasionally traffics in a little illicit Mayan antiquities. His life is upended by a couple of changes to his circumstances, including love (kind of ?) and the arrival of a band of dangerous hippies who may have something to do with a recent kidnapping in the United States. 

To describe more of the plot would be both giving away too much and pointless. Because in any Portis novel the real joy is the narrative voice, the dialogue, the ramshackle collection of eccentric characters, and the preposterous set pieces that the plot meanders between. Also enlivening every one of his novels are marvelous little observations and asides like the two below, both from Gringos:

Simcoe read a book. It was all right to do that here. In the States it was acceptable to read newspapers and magazines in public, but not books, unless you wanted to be taken for a student or a bum or a lunatic or all three. Here you could read books in cafes without giving much offense, and even write them.

A passage that should make anyone who has ever read or written along in a restaurant grin.

Also, for a taste of the "Unsolved Mysteries"-like esoterica that drifts into Gringos:

Still, the flying saucer books were fun to read and there weren't nearly enough of them to suit me. I liked the belligerent ones best, that took no crap off the science establishment.

Do check out Portis's books; not just True Grit, which is a masterpiece and well worth your time, but his others as well. They're all great, and precious few.

No Man's Land

Soldiers of the Wiltshire Regiment attack across no-man's-land at the Somme, August 1916.

Soldiers of the Wiltshire Regiment attack across no-man's-land at the Somme, August 1916.

It's the last day of January. How many New Year's resolutions lie in smoldering ruins? I've managed to give new life to two of mine—losing weight and reading seventy books—through a simple change of routine. I'm spending half an hour on the stationary bike every day, half an hour to exercise, clear my mind, and read. I've already managed to blister through three novels this way: Evelyn Waugh's hilarious Scoop, Ready Player One (about which more at another time, perhaps), and the subject of today's post, No Man's Land, by Simon Tolkien.

I haven't actually finished No Man's Land yet, but I already want to recommend it. It was a breath of fresh air, after the empty ephemera of Ready Player One, to read a novel that, while imperfect, wants to grapple with real life, with things that matter. 

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No Man's Land is the story of Adam Raine, a London boy whose father, a socialist labor activist, moves himself and Adam to a coal mining town in the north of England. There, Adam's father, a changed man after the tragedy that drove them from London, struggles as a union negotiator to balance the demands of his fellow workers with the realities of mining life and the claims of the mine's owner, Sir John Scarsdale. Adam struggles to fit in; he's a bright, bookish boy and his father works hard to keep him in school and out of the mine. Demagogues and agitators threaten Adam's father's position and the safety of everyone in the mine, and local boys show a natural hostility to Adam. Another tragedy brings the two halves of this story together, and sets Adam's life on a new and unexpected course.

When Adam is taken in by Sir John with the promise of seeing that he completes his schooling and has a chance at an Oxford scholarship, Adam becomes close with Seaton, Sir John's elder son, a principled, good-humored army officer, but falls foul of Brice, Seaton's younger brother, a boy Adam's own age. Brice is conceited, self-absorbed, and entitled. He also aims to marry Miriam, the beautiful daughter of the local parson and the object of Adam's admiration since the day he met her. 

The novel begins in 1900, when Adam is a small boy, and, as the title suggests, the First World War is the ever-present, looming threat to all of this—to Adam's romance with Miriam, to the mine and its workers and their families, to Sir John and his heirs, to Britain, and to the lives of all the characters. When war comes, most of them end up in the trenches. Adam, Seaton, and their peers from Scarsdale end up at the Somme.

I have less than 200 pages to go, and the story has just brought us to July 1, 1916, the awful first day of the British assault on the Somme, a day that saw over 19,000 British soldiers killed, most within the first few hours, and another 38,000 wounded. The author depicts the battle in all its horror, without flinching or holding back. Not all of the characters made it out of that first day--and the Battle of the Somme lasted until mid-November. 

With its class struggle, romantic rivalries, and large cast of workers, housewives, butlers, country parsons, lords, and ladies, No Man's Land teeters on the brink of melodrama. Comparisons to Downton Abbey suggest themselves, but the novel reminds me more of Dickens than contemporary TV. The characters are sympathetically portrayed and well-drawn, and their conflicts with each other feel real. This is especially refreshing in a Games of Thrones era in which everything is resolved with murder, rape, or some combination of the two. 

Most interestingly, and something the publishers have taken full advantage of in promoting the book—the novel is dedicated to JRR Tolkien, the author's grandfather. Simon Tolkien drew on his grandfather's experiences at the Somme as an inspiration, and certain elements of the narrative, such as Adam's chaste, dutiful pursuit of Miriam, reflect real moments from Tolkien's life. The novel is mostly fiction, the plot and characters mostly fictitious, but its connection to a remarkable real life man lends the novel a richness that elevates the book.

I may have more thoughts when I've finished the book. As I've said, it's imperfect, but it's very, very good, a refreshingly old-fashioned novel that realistically and sympathetically depicts a crucial historical moment through the lives of ordinary people. 

The Loved One

As I've mentioned before, I've been reading Evelyn Waugh this year, and have already gotten through two of his shorter novels. I'm a latecomer but love his work. Last night, I finished The Loved One

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The Loved One, published in 1948, is the story of Dennis Barlow, a young English war veteran living in Los Angeles. After publishing one volume of poetry to great acclaim in Britain, he was recruited by Hollywood to help write a biopic of Shelley. That project having fallen through, he became a script doctor. When the novel begins, he has been totally out of work for months and has settled for a job he is surprised to find he enjoys—working at a mortuary for pets.

When a friend in the English expatriate community loses his writing contract after twenty-five years with the studio, he kills himself, and Dennis is the only one available to make funeral arrangements. He goes to the largest and most famous cemetery around, Whispering Glades, where "loved ones"—not corpses—are prepared for eternity in "slumber rooms" and "the waiting" have a wide variety of non-sectarian ministers and sanctuaries to choose from for preparation, commemoration, and burial. 

At Whispering Glades, Dennis meets and falls for Aimée Thanatogenos, a young cosmetician who specializes in freshening the appearance of "loved ones" with makeup and haircuts. She works under the rock-star embalmer Mr. Joyboy, charismatic and beloved of everyone at Whispering Glades, who has been making his intentions toward her clear by passing his freshly embalmed "loved ones" on to her work station wearing enormous grins. 

Think Barton Fink crossed with Bernie.

After Aimée criticizes the Happier Hunting Ground, the pet mortuary where Dennis works, he determines to woo her strictly through his poetry, never mentioning his job. Unfortunately, he has writer's block, and cribs from everyone from Keats to Poe in order to win her over. Aimée finds herself torn between the flashy and winsome Mr. Joyboy and the apparently unemployed but sweet British poet.

I can't summarize much more without giving things away, and the novel is less than 150 pages long, so I'll stop there. The situations that develop from these circumstances are hilarious, and finally intersect in first funny, then shocking ways.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-66), master of savage satire.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-66), master of savage satire.

Waugh's sense of humor is notoriously dark and cruel, and this novel has some of the blackest comedy I've ever read. It's also one of the funniest novels I've ever read. I laughed out loud throughout, even through some of its darkest and most shocking turns.

Beyond the dark humor, Waugh's sense of irony gives the whole book a cutting satirical edge. Most obvious are Waugh's digs at American manners. "They are a very decent, generous lot of people out here and they don't expect you to listen," one elderly Englishman remarks near the beginning. "Always remember that, dear boy. It's the secret of social ease in this country. They talk entirely for their own pleasure. Nothing they say is designed to be heard." 

More biting are Waugh's critiques of American beliefs and sentiments, particularly around the subject of death. Whispering Glades is a very obvious spoof of a real place—Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Waugh visited on an abortive trip to MGM to discuss filming rights for another book, and left more fascinated with the cemetery than anything else in the film capital of the world. The sentimentality, the tasteless displays, the rootless striving for legitimacy, the commodification of a sacred rite, the litany of unthinking euphemisms—many of which, like memorial park and loved one, we no longer even notice as euphemisms—all show a world in retreat from the realities of life and death. A world like Hollywood.

Waugh brings these themes out poignantly in several late incidents in the plot, but I don't want to give anything away. The Loved One is a rich and hilarious novel, and I highly recommend it.