Monday, December 22, 2008

The School on Heart's Content Road by Carolyn Chute

As with Chute's first novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine, this novel is really unlike anybody else's. And as with her first novel, I loved the opening sixty pages or so and then felt a diminishing return. Still the originality and the writing and a tender (sort of) ending make it worth following through (I originally, accidentally wrote falling through, which maybe is more what I meant). Anyway, the novel follows a commune and a militia, each in Maine, and how their goals and members intersect and collide. In some ways, especially in its social commentary, it's like a Don DeLillo novel, just not about the middle class. And whereas DeLillo has the television in the background saying "Toyota Celica" during a scene, Chute gives the TV a voice of its own (the novel is in alternating voices, most less than a page or two). This is what the TV has to say first: "Beeeee afraid! Low types of people are everywhere; in cities, in towns, in your backyard! In other countries. Drugged, crazed, mindless, evil is at large!" In order to distinguish between the voices, some of which are major characters (they get the most time), some of which are inanimate (the tv) or at least not human (a crow), Chute uses little typographical symbols to label them. This is the kind of thing students sometimes do with their word processors, and I used to discourage it (too cute for my taste) but lately I've gotten more interested in what writers can do graphically in their text, and here Chute's symbols are a help not a hindrance. And though they are a bit cute, or maybe gimmicky, it works all right with her voice, which is exaggerated and a little silly--which works to counterbalance the rather tragic plot.

A good moment of characterization of one of the main speakers, Mickey, a sixteen year old boy: "I was just taking the bus to school, to finish out the year at this school here. I don't mess with their books--you know, frig with them, write shit in them, or vandalize things. That's stupid. But I figured before the last day in June I was going to draw a picture of Mr. Carney sucking a pony's ---- on a separate piece of paper. And, you know, tape it into the book."

And I've never smoked but this seemed like a good, non-cliched way to describe addiction: "He has tried to give up cigarettes but he can't. Where the drive for food is felt in the stomach and the drive for sex is a hot spot between the legs, the drive for a cigarette is felt in every cell. It is a hunger shaped exactly like Mickey inside Mickey, a flaming Mickey shape screaming, I need! I need!"

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