‘The intellect when it really tries
can for a time replace the sun
though it won’t ripen strawberries.’
—Anna Kamieńska, ‘Classicism’
It is often the curse of those who return to their small town homes after education afar that they feel an alienation from the people and customs that formed them. Not that Henry Aster was ever of a piece with his surroundings. Growing up in the northwestern-most corner of North Carolina, where the state meets Tennessee and Virginia, Henry was always unusual—preternaturally eloquent and bookish beyond belief.
When Aster returned from college to begin a law practice in Old Buckram, sporting a new wife, they took up residence in the most discordant house in the area—a glass and iron monstrosity built by an avant-garde architect that had been the scene of a grisly murder-suicide involving a family of five. The “vulture house” perched on the edge of a mountain above the town and, with its massive library, became the perfect lair for Henry as he pursued his real avocation—writing a book, despite no discernible gifts for communication. “Aster’s work, for all its brilliance, is impenetrable,” one reviewer noted, (21).
Aster is the looming presence in Phillip Lewis’s debut work of fiction, The Barrowfields. Like Thomas Wolfe, another North Carolina writer, who also haunts these pages, Lewis’s Aster tragically learns he can’t go home again. He occasionally looks the part of Wolfe, an obsessive writer scribbling passages of beauty that never really land, or Atticus Finch, as when he retrieves the town’s only copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying from a book-burning crowd on the titular Barrowfields, a barren patch of the town center. But he doesn’t connect and he’s miserable, just like his growing family in the gloomy house.
Aster knows how to play the part of small town insider just enough to feel a fraud.
He knew how to cock his head just right, and hold his mouth open, and say “You don’t say” and “Damn,” when he heard a remarkable story, and “Yep” and “Naw” and always “Come with us,” at the end of any conversation with an acquaintance met in an unexpected place…he could do it well, while in his mind he must have been smack-dab in the middle of Yoknapatawpha County. (46-7)
But he shares an affinity with the preacher in the small church the family attends. The preacher knows the struggle of doubt. Without the resources of education or even reading the Bible, he staves off the terrors with words. “Only by raising his exultant voice and filling the air with the sound of the Word of God would the demons be run from the sacred temple.” (82)
Aster writes from a similar compulsion. “I write,” he says, “because its one of the only things that seems real to me…It’s the only way short of death to make time stop.” (45) Those who know the power of books and writing will recognize the insight.
Aster’s disappearance mid-way through The Barrowfields sets the stage for his son, who narrates the book, to find his awkward way into adulthood. In the second half, the book threatens to become a romance, then a Pat Conroy novel, before returning to Appalachian Gothic.
Lewis’s writing is liquid and evocative, just like Thomas Wolfe, but as with Wolfe, the characters shrink into insignificance given the scale of the canvas. There is too much land, too much vision, too much within us and beyond us to allow simple stories, even our desperate, tragic stories, to take the spotlight.
Which makes Aster’s alienation all the more emblematic of the limits of the mind against such a landscape. It can liberate some, but entrap others. And for all its brilliance, as Anna Kamieńska has it, it can’t ripen strawberries.
Lewis continues in a long tradition of homesick American writers. It’s a beautiful but unsatisfying read that gestures at a place it can never quite arrive. I feel the same about Wolfe. After all he was the bard of home. And I felt cold comfort traveling with him there, too.
Whatever we can do or say must be forever hillbound. Our senses have been fed by our terrific land; our blood has learned to run to the imperial pulse of America which, leaving, we can never lose and never forget. We walked along a road in Cumberland, and stooped, because the sky hung down so low; and when we ran away from London, we went by little rivers in a land just big enough. And nowhere that we went was far: the earth and the sky were close and near. And the old hunger returned–the terrible and obscure hunger that haunts and hurts Americans, and that makes us exiles at home and strangers wherever we go.
—Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
Hogarth Press provided a copy of this book to the reviewer.