Can Anyone Find Home in North Carolina?: A Review of The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis


Photo by Mika Matin on Unsplash

‘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.  


Phillip Lewis

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.

Crossing into Mythical Mexico with Cormac McCarthy: A Review of The Crossing


Cormac McCarthy doesn’t need any more accolades from the likes of me.  His reputation as a great American writer seems pretty secure.  But as a recent convert to the ranks of his fans, I have to say of The Crossing – wow.

That’s probably sufficient.  I’m not going to be an equal to his prose and the writer in me just wants to lay down the pen and acknowledge the master.  But perhaps just a few more words.

The Crossing is the middle volume in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.  Throughout I was wondering what direct connection there was between this book and its predecessor, All the Pretty Horses.  The indirect connections are certainly there.  ATPH has a pair of teenaged protagonists in mid-20th century America discovering the world and themselves in cross-border expeditions with horses into northern Mexico.  The Crossing has the same, and you might be tempted to think that McCarthy is just writing the same book twice.

But the storylines don’t intersect, (though I understand that Billy Parham, the main protagonist in The Crossing, will meet up with John Grady Cole from the first book in Cities of the Plain).  And if there was high-spirited adventure and romance in ATPH, there is much more bleakness and scattered pieces of a narrative in The Crossing.

51UeFuwmXaL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_You can see some old ancestors in The Crossing—Don Quixote, The Odyssey, Flannery O’Conner, Faulkner—but what McCarthy does with them is absolutely unique to him.  There is a pregnant wolf who makes the first crossing from Mexico into New Mexico and becomes the focus of Billy Parham’s unexplained quest to return her to the mountains from which she has come.  There is Billy’s long sojourn in those mountains following the violent end of that quest in which he is immersed into a Mexico still scarred by the terrors of the Revolution, now some two decades in the past.

There is Billy’s return to New Mexico to discover his parents slaughtered and the family horses stolen.  Billy’s reunion with his brother Boyd and their journey back to Mexico to try and retrieve what has been lost.  A 14-year-old girl who becomes an unlikely companion.  Adventures with ruthless horse thieves.  A grievous injury.  Encounters with a blind veteran and a circus diva.  And in the end Billy is left on his own to return back home.

After failed attempts to enlist as World War II is beginning, Billy knocks around ranches picking up jobs before making one last crossing.  This time, his brother and the girl have entered the realm of legend.  Billy digs up Boyd from a desolate grave and carries his bones back to the States, but not without one more encounter with deadly thieves and one more metaphysical conversation with gypsies carting around an airplane fuselage.

What this summary doesn’t capture is the beauty of McCarthy’s writing and his supernatural gift with description.  You will get lost in the particulars, but you will know the terrain with intimacy.  And it is that deeper knowing that this trilogy keeps pointing to.  To know in a place the story of earth, heaven, and humanity itself.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #6 Sing, Unburied, Sing

51ipyal4R-L._UY250_Mississippi has many layers.  William Faulkner knew this and crafted his intricate tales of Yoknapatawpha County with characters haunted by the past, spurred by subterranean passions, and trapped in violent, tragic relationships.  Jesmyn Ward claims Faulkner as an literary influence and it shows in her rich novels of Bois Sauvage, like Yoknapatawpha, a fictional rendering of the Mississippi she knows.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of an extended family trying to come to terms with their limitations.  We meet Jojo, a 13-year-old with a drug-addicted African-American mother and an imprisoned white father, who is coming of age with the burdens of trying to understand what it means to be a man while being the healing center of his family.  His mother, Leonie, is haunted by the ghost of her brother and her inability to really care for her children or mother.  His grandfather, is similarly burdened by a past he can’t give voice to.

Perspective shifts with each chapter.  The past is never far away.  Racial tensions are everywhere.  The dead are as needy as the living.  And yet there is a surprising grace suffusing everything.

It took me awhile to get into this book, despite the fact that its opening scene was the best I read all year – Jojo and his grandfather slaughtering a goat and introducing the theme of life and death.  I was reading the book in small doses when it really demands sustained engagement.  But it is affecting and the images linger.

71-wjMrvimL._UX250_Jesmyn Ward has had a big year.  She just got a MacArthur genius grant and Sing, Unburied, Sing won the National Book Award for fiction.  She also put Southern fiction back on the map in a big way.  I put it at #6 on the Best Reads List.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

A Tear for Bois Sauvage: A Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

fullsizeoutput_17f7It’s not often that the ending of a book makes me moist-eyed.  And I can’t ever recall when the acknowledgements did that.  But there it was in the final sentences on page 289 of Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award-winning novel by Jesmyn Ward:  “In closing, I’d like to thank everyone in my community in DeLisle, Mississippi, who inspired my stories and gave me a sense of belonging.  I am ever grateful for every one of you.  I love you all.”

I’m man enough to say it was raining on my face in that moment.

Part of that was just because I so admire books that can evoke a place and Jesmyn Ward does that, even if DeLisle becomes Bois Sauvage in her fiction.  (She also used it as the setting of her Hurricane Katrina book, Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011.)

51ipyal4R-L._UY250_But the main reason was that she had so earned the sentiment in this book.  Every one of the troubled characters in the book is treated with respect and even love, from drug-addled Leonie, trying so hard to be a daughter and a mom and failing so miserably most of the time, to Jojo, her 13-year-old son who is growing into manhood with an ocean of wounds.

At the center of the book is a road trip that Leonie takes to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, with her addict friend Misty and her two children, Jojo & Kayla, to pick up her abusive husband, Michael, on his release.  Only the trip is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.  There are ghosts along the way.  Leonie is haunted by her brother, Given, who was murdered by Michael’s family in a “hunting accident” years before.  Jojo is visited by Richie, a teenaged boy who died at Parchman while Jojo’s grandfather was serving time there.  The circumstances of his death become the occasion for Jojo’s coming of age and coming to terms with his grandfather.

The best window on how to read this book is actually offered before the first page where Ward includes this quote from fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty:

“The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit.  But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.”

Ward knows there’s more than humidity close in the air in Mississippi.  There’s the past that never dies, the hope that persists through tragedy, and the deep movement of song.


Jesmyn Ward

It’s not that it’s all mystery and lyricism.  Ward takes us into the swamps of racial interactions.  Leonie is black, Michael is white and their families have trouble with their relationship because of it.  There’s a terrifying scene when the family is pulled over and brutalized by a police officer on the way back to Bois Sauvage.  There are also bald-faced racists spouting vile things.  But somehow Ward moves us to care for the monsters and to recognize that bigger forces, like the system of historical racism, are at play.

On display at every moment is the humanity of these characters—the way they sabotage themselves and wound each other but also the way they meet each other with tenderness and remorse.  The book is full of bodies in close connection—fathers and sons rolling on the floor fighting, little girls clinging to the neck of an older brother, an addict coming back from an overdose with her head in the lap of her husband.  Even in the violence there is intimacy.  And even at the end there is the possibility of transcendence.

This is a beautifully-written book that gives dignity to people who don’t usually receive it.  When she received her recent National Book Award, Ward noted:

“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners.”

But like Faulkner and Welty, whom she claims as literary kin, Ward does know that the whole universe is in every particular, and every place is in her place, and those who have died yet live.  It’s worth shedding a tear over such a place because, like her, I came to love them all.

Free to Use Dangling Participles: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 2 of 3


photo by Kelli Tungay via Unsplash

Let’s not put Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now?, (recently reviewed here on Heartlands), into a box called Christian fiction.  She is a Christian and there are strong Christian themes in the book, but this is not an Amish romance.  James tackles difficult themes like suicide, cutting, and substance abuse with vivid, fully-fleshed out characters.

In the first segment of this interview we talked about her life and her upcoming memoir.  Here we explore the freedom to write and following your instincts.

How long have you been living with this book?

Quite awhile. It’s one of those things where it’s in your head and you write notes and you leave it  alone for a while.  Actually, the first draft, (it was a messy draft), was before everything happened with our son.  So, it would probably be six to seven years ago.  Then, I just let it sit while we struggled through that whole time.  Interestingly, it seems like our struggles with our son informed the book, but the book was written before everything happened with our son.

Wow, that’s extraordinary.  Did you feel that the book was preparing you, in some way, for what happened?

Oh, that’s a really good question. It probably was in that, on a subconscious level, these were the sorts of things that were in my head.  Probably, because, by that time, we did have a lot of kids around our house that were struggling. We met some girls through our daughter. Our kids are all very close to my husband.  So, she would bring strays over to the house and sit them down in our living room with my husband and say, “Alright, you need to talk to my Dad.”  Then she’d sit them down and she’d leave to go to do something. So, my husband Rick would just be there with this girl and eventually they talk.  And I would come in and we’d talk together.  So, it was good. Kids stayed here a lot. Probably because we let them smoke. We were so stupid in a lot of ways.

Tell me a little bit about art and perspective and how that informed this book, because it’s so much a part of the book. You start with that really striking image in the beginning of Margie, one of the main characters, with her head above water following a suicide attempt.  You play with that perspective and then you keep shifting each chapter to different characters. How does your visual art sense play into constructing the book?

Very intensely.  It’s such a part of it.  I imagine the physical feel of things. I think the shape of my memory about the physicality of things, including what things look like is very permanent and perceptive. So I can remember things that way.  Verbally, I remember very little. Even when I read.  I’m a very slow, slow reader. Although I can stall on sentences and paragraphs and just be blown away, and very much appreciate excellent writing, that doesn’t mean that I remember a whole lot.


Katherine James

For some reason, I can remember physical environment, images. And then, words would come out of those images.  I always think of Faulkner, because I think that I’ve read somewhere that he started with images.  I could really connect to that.

When I started to write, the most freeing things that anybody told me, (I think it was one of my professors when I was getting my MFA), was that you can do anything you want with fiction.  I was kind of blown away by that.  And I wasn’t sure. “What do you mean ‘anything I want’?”

“Any. thing. you want.”

And I go, “No way! I can have dangling participles?  Which, I don’t know what those are, but I can have them?  I don’t have to worry even about sentence structure if it sounds right?”  It was so freeing and after that is really when I hit the page.  I felt the freedom to keep going because my limitations really did tend to be not really knowing so much.

I don’t think that I’d be a very good composition teacher.  I could definitely teach poetry or fiction and I could teach those things well.  But when it comes to the mechanics of writing—the Chicago Manual style—I would just rip that up because it would really mess with my brain. So, that one statement was really powerful to me. It gave me this freedom to keep going.  Kind of like the Cubist movement maybe.

I’ve always heard that about writing: You learn all the rules so that you can break them.

[laughs] I never learned all the rules. I learned to break them immediately.  That’s why my poetry was so easy.  Sure, I knew how to write a sonnet and all of that, but free verse was big when I really started writing poetry in grade school.  It was really like, “Oh, I really can do anything I want”—I thought that was okay with poetry. But I didn’t know that with fiction that was true, too.  It can carry over into narrative nonfiction—at least these days it can.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Did you just feel that you were just following your instincts as you moved from chapter to chapter in this book?

Yes.  Every writer is so different, but, for me, usually I’ll write the first three chapters or so.  The characters begin to take shape and the environment   From there, I start to have a sense of where I’m headed.  Often I will go all the way to the back, to the last page, and I’ll write it.  I’ll write exactly where I want it to end.  Then I start back where I was before and I know exactly the ending that I want to get to.  So that’s the goal.  I can go anywhere in the middle but I know that’s where I want to end up.

It’s interesting how writers write.  I’ve heard that John Irving actually starts at the end and then writes towards the beginning.  I imagine if you could do that your plot would be phenomenal.

Of course, there are plenty of writers who do the outline or put little stick-up notes all over their desks, or Scrivner on the computer. I’ve tried that, but just doesn’t seem to work as well with me.

Segment 3 of the interview: “A God’s-Eye View”.

An Osage Mirror: A Review of Killers of the Flower Moon


Two-thirds of the way through this book [Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI] and I was fixing to get very disappointed.  Sure, David Grann had done what his title said that he was going to do.  He had thrown us into the strange wave of murders that plagued Osage County, Oklahoma in the early 1920s.  Native people, newly enriched from headright sales of mineral rights, were dying mysteriously, violently, in great numbers.  Some nefarious plot was brewing and people were poisoned, shot, bombed, and thrown from trains.

Enter Agent Tom White and the new Bureau of Investigation, soon to be the FBI.  The upstanding law men, using a mix of Western savvy and modern scientific methods, cracked the case, identified the culprits, and brought them in.  By the end of the second part, or “chronicle” as this book has it, the climactic courtroom scene has happened and we are well into the wrap-up stories of where the principals ended up.  J. Edgar Hoover’s reputation has been solidified and he goes on to be a Washington institution.  Tom White becomes the warden of Leavenworth and later writes a book.  Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman at the center of the story, goes on to remarry.  “We’re clearly winding things up here,” I thought.

51Gk++yHGHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_So we had the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI, as promised.  But, wait—did we really get that much about the Osage people and their culture?  And compelling as the storyline was, did it really end so cleanly?  What about all the loose ends?  The doctors who seemed not only incompetent but complicit?  The other deaths that seemed to have nothing to do with the man who was fingered?

It was then that I noticed that some 70 pages still remained and yet a third chronicle.  The story was about to get much better and much worse.

David Grann doesn’t linger over the big questions.  Like the Bureau men he clearly admires, Grann sticks to the facts.  Sometimes they are evocative facts, like the way the sun “floated above the rim of the earth—a perfect orange sphere that soon became half a sun, then a quarter, before dying off with a burst of dazzling light.”  But most of the time they are much more prosaic.

It keeps his story simple, which is a relief because there are a lot of characters to keep up with here.  The oil boom that made the Osage millionaires brought a lot of interests to Oklahoma.  The way that the Osage story fits into the larger narrative of how white America dealt with native peoples was complicated enough and full of prejudice and exploitation.  The system of guardianships that left mostly white men in charge of the wealth of the Osage (because the Osage were deemed incapable of managing it on their own) only compounded the problems.

So when the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective.  Grann uses a Faulkner quote from Absalom! Absalom! to send us down into the abyss: “We see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.”

When the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective.

Maybe it’s because Grann really does feel that the people whose lives he is exploring are inexplicable that he lets Faulkner carry all the weight of what this all means.  He can’t fathom the horrors of a story that is not about one bad actor but a whole society.  He can’t begin to get at the psychological scars such a history produces.  He doesn’t have answers for the desolation he sees out on the depopulated prairie where this story unfolded.

So he does the responsible thing and just points.  Look at this.  Behold.  See if you can keep your innocence in the face of this story.  And all those facts from early in the book that seemed distant and quaint and made you think of the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s?  How distant and quaint do they seem now?  I helped you look at this.  You’ve got to look at us.

Grann does what he can and it is considerable.  This is historical journalism that resonates.