Your Wicked Good Militia
The School on Heart’s Content Road
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008, 384 pp., $24.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Mary Zeiss Stange
One of the luxuries—and, surely, responsibilities—that comes with reviewing a book some months after its publication is reading what other reviewers had to say about it. Perhaps the most striking thing about reviews of Carolyn Chute’s latest novel is the extent to which it seems to impel comparison with the work of other authors. The School on Heart’s Content Road “feels like the book Barbara Ehrenreich might write with John Steinbeck if they locked themselves in a Maine motel room and spent weeks watching nothing but Fox News” (USA Today). It “reads as if Ralph Nader asked Ken Kesey to collaborate on a chronicle of life in the Disunited States, and Kesey pulled out all the stops” (Chicago Tribune). The book contains “deep resounding echoes of Faulkner and Upton Sinclair” (Baltimore Sun). Chute is an “American Dickens” (San Diego Union-Tribune). Or she is like the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (Hartford Courant). Or, according to a writer for Maine’s Island Institute, she is more like Bertolt Brecht, and the novel draws most fitting comparison to The Threepenny Opera. I could play this game of critical high-stepping, too, and throw in a nod to Balzac while we’re at it.
But as apt, even illuminating, as all these comparisons may be, they leave me wondering: Why can’t reviewers just let Carolyn Chute be Carolyn Chute? I think there are two ways to answer this question. One is to observe that it is far easier to “place” her in an identifiable niche in an established literary tradition than to take this profoundly original writer on her own unsettling terms. The simpler answer is that, although most critics wouldn’t admit it, she scares the living daylights out of them.
Chute has readily acknowledged in interviews that there is a considerable autobiographical component in this novel, which is the first of a five-book series. She is a gun enthusiast (her favorite firearm being an AK-47), a staunch proponent of the Second Amendment, and a founder of the 2nd Maine Militia (a.k.a. “Your Wicked Good Militia”). She and her husband live in a wood-heated rural cabin without indoor plumbing, with a junk-strewn yard and signs posted on its dirt entry-road warning visitors to keep out. She has consistently disdained the literary limelight in which she might profitably have basked after her astonishing debut novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1985) and its sequel Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts (1989), hewing instead to a hardscrabble lifestyle—intellectual as well as economic—closer to that of her novels’ characters than to that of most of her books’ likely readers. A high-school dropout, Chute refers to herself as a redneck, and favors the secession of Maine from the Union.
Did I mention that she is also an economic populist and a socially progressive Noam Chomsky fan? And, thereby, potentially a liberal’s worst nightmare.
Chute herself eschews the political binary of left and right. Her 2nd Maine Militia claims to be a “no-wing” organization, as does the True Maine Militia conceived by one of the female characters in her new novel. For Chute, the only meaningful division in American politics is between up and down—“down” being soul-grinding poverty. Early on in the narrative, in the shabby home of fifteen-year-old Mickey Gammon, a pain-racked toddler is dying of cancer:
In this household there is no money today. No money. No money. No money.
Out there in the world are whole bins of pain pills unreachable as clouds. The key to painlessness is money. Money is everything.
Mickey is one of two narrative foci in the novel, six-year-old “Secret Agent” Jane Meserve being the other. Both are effectively orphans—Mickey is thrown out of the house by his brother, and fatherless Jane’s mother is in prison on a drug charge—and both are dependent upon the kindness of others. Mickey is informally adopted as a protégé of sorts by Rex York, a politically reactionary, Bible-thumping, battle-scarred Vietnam vet and leader of the right-wing Border Mountain Militia. Jane’s maternal grandfather has turned her over for safekeeping to the Settlement, a quasireligious commune gathered under the charismatic leadership of the polygamous Prophet, Gordon St. Onge, whose passions run to left-wing political discourse, women in general and damsels in distress in particular, and beer and whiskey, not necessarily in that order.
The primary narrative tension of this complex book (more on the complexity below) is between Rex and Gordon—old friends, once fellow carousers and sometime blood brothers, now uneasy allies—over their sharply differing convictions about what constitutes a viable human community. Rex evokes the stereotype of the militiaman. His “chitchat” runs to:
Talk of the government and the United Nations and the Constitution and the way money is no longer backed by gold and the impending declaration of martial law by the president, of the New World Order and the liberals and the socialists, and then some about jury rights and separation of powers, the Federalist Papers, and on to Waco and Ruby Ridge.
Meanwhile, the Prophet and his ever-more-extended family at the Settlement inhabit an alternative political landscape. As Penny St. Onge, one of Gordon’s many wives, recalls one typical evening:
There was an audio tape playing. Something like water companies moving in on all of India’s water or the CIA’s installation of the dictator Pinochet in Chile and his recent flight to a European safe harbor. Maybe the tape told of American financiers’ roles in the present sadness of Haiti. Those tapes stitched an enormous patchwork of ruin and misery, bank-approved. It would crack your heart but for the lecturers’ voices, so collegiate and paper cold.
The Settlement, Gordon’s response to this “patchwork of ruin,” is in fact a self-sufficient rural cooperative, purveying seasonal produce and various foodstuffs in regional farmers’ markets, marketing timber and furniture and clothes, processing wild game in the fall and selling Christmas trees in winter, and homeschooling the children (hence the book’s title). For the founding members of the True Maine Militia, who happen to be Gordon’s youngest wife, Bree—she is fifteen—and several of his daughters, the motivating force behind all this is “not politics, it is love. Because [Gordon] has always been just twisted up in love and yearning.”
The view from outside is predictably very different, as the Settlement attracts growing attention among the news media (a screaming TV is one of the narrative voices in the novel). Gordon’s wife Claire, an adjunct professor of history at a nearby university, recounts hearing a radio call-in show:
Gordon was a pedophile . . . there were stockpiled weapons, drugs, pagan worship. The radio host made no comment . . .another caller said we were Fundamentalist Christians and Jew-haters. The next caller used the word Nazis. The talk-show host himself called us separatists. The next caller said “They are not allowed outside their gates.” . . .There was mention of a possible group suicide and a probable siege with government agents . . . . One very low-voiced man, a kind of Boris-Karloff sound-alike, spoke of his “knowledge” that very little girls at “that school” were pregnant.
It is on this score, of course, that the novel verges uncomfortably close to the evening news—and to the tendency among the American press and public to prefer demonization of religious and cultural “others” to any honest attempt to understand the reasons, often very good ones, that their collective values diverge from those of the mainstream.
If anyone in the novel epitomizes what is wrong with those mainstream values, it is precocious little Jane—by turns charming, pathetic, and monstrous—who views the world through heart-shaped rose-colored glasses. Jane is obsessed with clothes, junk food, and sexiness. She develops a crush on Mickey Gammon, whose adolescent cluelessness about what manhood may ultimately entail for him renders him the most sympathetic—and in some ways the most fully drawn—character in a very crowded book.
Indeed, there are so many characters in The School on Heart’s Content Road, some well developed and others barely sketched, that Chute supplies a Character List to help the reader keep the major ones more or less straight. There are, in addition, numerous narrative voices (grouped together for purposes of identification by a series of thirteen icons), some of which (like a flock of crows and that TV screen) provide crucial perspectives on the action, while others (like God and commentators from the planet Pluto) are, frankly, silly. A tangle of story lines are commenced, then dropped or suspended. There’s a powerful sense of quite a bit of yet-to-be-revealed backstory, as well as hints of things to come. The novel’s climax feels rushed and contrived, its denouement oddly open-ended. All of which makes sense, in a book that was originally 2,600 pages in manuscript, and is now the first of Chute’s projected “5-o-gy.”
To say the narrative texture of the book is uneven, occasionally disjointed, and undisciplined overall is not thereby to criticize its quality as fiction. Chute’s art is as sloppy and at times as improbable as life itself. And these days, with an economic collapse of crisis proportions, absurdly volatile markets, soaring unemployment rates, dashed hopes, and lost life savings for a growing proportion of the population—virtually all of it thanks to a decade of government and greed both gone wild—one needn’t be a backwoods extremist to wonder, as Gordon asks rhetorically,
[W]hat will shopping mean to you when a loaf of bread is ten dollars, your pay is three dollars a day, and gasoline to get to work and to the store is eight dollars a gallon, and your payroll tax comes to half your pay, and there’s no more Social Security, just something funny and funky?
Another leitmotif in reviews of Chute’s work has to do with the way she gives depth to her “simple” characters (USA Today), “shattering the narrow idealism of our own limited lives” (Dallas Morning News), to portray “a dark dream from the wrong side of the tracks” (Hartford Courant). One can almost picture these critics holding the book at arm’s length, perhaps washing their hands after putting it down. Surely, the folks about whom Chute writes are not people like us? They’re compelling characters, yes, indeed they grow on one, their stories get under one’s skin. But as presidential candidate Barack Obama said of people similar to Chute’s characters, at a private fundraiser during last year’s primaries, “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
When Obama was pressed to account for those notorious off-the-cuff remarks he explained that perhaps his wording left something to be desired, “But the undergirding truth of what I said remains, which is simply that people who have seen their way of life upended because of economic distress are frustrated and rightfully so.”
Well, that’s the easy liberal explanation.
Carolyn Chute’s “no-wing” account is rather more uncompromising. In the world of her novels, to call social inequality simply a source of frustration is, ultimately, to miss the point. Her characters are so compelling not because they are unlike “us.” Quite the contrary: In their drive to survive with a modicum of dignity and sanity, to cling to whatever it takes to make it through another day, rising to heights of compassion, sinking to depths beyond misery, but nonetheless still standing, they are us—at our paradoxical worst and best. Call that whatever you wish, in terms of literary lineage. But it is Wicked Good Fiction.
Mary Zeiss Stange is a professor of Women’s Studies and Religion at Skidmore College, the author of Woman the Hunter and co-author of Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America. Her Hard Grass: Life on the Crazy Woman Ranch will be published later this year by the University of New Mexico Press.