The Book I Read: Works Unfinished, Finishing the Appalachian Book of the Dead, and a Prayer for October

Listen to the Podcast version of this blog entry here!

True confession: I often abandon books before I finish them. Sometimes I go back, sometimes I never do. The reasons for the abandonment vary–but rarely, is it because I am disinterested. Only a couple of times have I ever stopped reading because I thought the book was awful. I’m not going to talk about those books. I’m staking out a philosophical stand here, in this podcast, that I’m really not interested in slagging on books. So, most often, I will stop reading a book because I have been distracted by another reading, wooed away, if you will, by something more tantalizing and shiny (and likely, less challenging). Often, I am interrupted by the beginning of the school year, and here we are–when there are so many other responsibilities in preparation and in keeping the ball in the air for September and October. I just run out of time for recreational reading of any kind. Sometimes I will abandon a book simply because I have bit off more than I could chew. I’ve chosen something ambitious or difficult. I have read IN Finnegans Wake, for example, but I have never even attempted to go from cover to cover. In a similar vein, I think I tried Ulysses four or five times–each time I’d go back to the beginning and start all over again, get about as far as I got the last time, and then give up again. I am proud to say, that one year I did finally read all the way through the great Joyce novel. I felt pretty good about that, even though I knew that I understood it poorly–knew more from things I had read about it than I did from the actual reading of it. It’s on my bucket list to read again; Finnegans Wake, too, is a book that I would like to tackle before I die–just so that I could say that I did it. No–I’m sure it would be more than that. I don’t think I read ever simply for bragging rights. Although, that would not be nearly as bad as bragging about not reading. I hate to hear people speak about getting all the way through school without reading a book from cover to cover as if it’s some great accomplishment. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t ya.

Two of my favorite books I’ve never finished are The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I think I got maybe 100 pages or so into Melville’s masterpiece on a couple different occasions, and it was a simple lack of stamina or commitment that stopped me–much of it I found absolutely engaging and astonishingly MODERN. I really loved it. Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab–just fascinating characters. Someday soon I will return to those guys. Writing it, or saying it out loud like this, I think, makes it more likely to become a reality. What is that pattern? Thoughts become words become actions. This is how things happen. I spoke about the Thomas Mann novel very briefly in my last episode, and I think it is, in this time and moment, a book that I must come back to–like right about now. It’s a pandemic novel, for crying out loud. And I think I will experiment. I put that novel down a year ago. Instead of what I have done with Ulysses and Moby Dick, that is, every time I pick it up I go back to the beginning, Sisyphus-like, and start again, I think what I’ll do this time is just simply review passages that I’ve marked, jar the old memory banks, and begin exactly where I left off a year ago, about 230 pages into a 700 page tome. It won’t be that hard. I did leave behind a series of reflections on my progress–an experiment with the ubiquitous “reaction video”–that petered out after about 4 episodes.

. . . So, while I am diving back into–or climbing back onto–The Magic Mountain, I have finished Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. So let’s talk about that. In the last episode I introduced you to the main characters, an aging couple recently married (Cal, the retired commodities trader and his younger wife, Joy, the pottery artist, formerly a physical therapist), Ainsley, a young bohemian woman practicing Tibetan Buddhism, and Doyle, the superstitious and handy caretaker of the abandoned Camp Bee Tree for girls–all of them living in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains–pretty isolated save for each other’s strange company. However, there may or may not be an escaped convict–a psychopathic murderer, no less, hiding in the woods. When Ainsley, our Buddhist yurt dweller, who has recently shaved off her dreadlocks and is completely bald, starts feeding a visiting coyote, can we be sure it’s the coyote and not the convict that’s taking the food she leaves out? And who or what is killing Joy’s barn cats? Are these folks in danger? So that’s part of the drama, always percolating, but just beneath the surface. If you were to call this novel a “thriller,” you’d be on to something–but you wouldn’t be capturing the essence of this thing–which is, to my understanding, realistic, literary fiction–and I say literary for two reasons. One, the writing is exquisite, beautiful, finely crafted. And the characterization is deep. It seems to me, a standard kind of horror story or thriller novel turns mostly on plot–what’s gonna happen next. While literary fiction often turns on character. Who are these people? What makes them tick? And why do I care so much? What am I learning? How have I been confronted with new ideas? While you’re likely to be entertained by a popular thriller, you’re more likely to be CHANGED by literary fiction. That’s what we have here with Dale Neal’s novel.

A few choices, though, amp up the thrill and the drama: Neal’s decision to write a few chapters in the Coyote’s perspective as she appears to cross paths with the escaped convict, and his super creepy choice of giving chapters to the convict as well, delivered in second person no less, so that the reader in a sense becomes the bad guy in the story, the bad guy whose chapters are punctuated with instructions in italicized print, which, I’m guessing, are taken directly from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, instructions for passing through the various stages of the Bardo, the in-between, before emerging into the next life. Perhaps, the convict, lost in this in-between of the mysterious and wild Appalachian Mountains, is metaphorically in a kind of Bardo. Meanwhile, we spend a significant amount of time with our four main characters–we learn more and more about them as the novel progresses; questions we have about their pasts are answered–and in some cases, like the fate of Ainsley’s boyfriend Bernie, our assumptions from earlier in the novel are corrected. It turns out that each of these individuals, including our lurking boogie man, have these incredibly vivid and often tragic back stories. And while I call this novel realistic fiction–it’s full of ghosts. They may be psychological ghosts–but they are delivered by our narrator, in the point of view of the character of focus for each chapter, as if they were literal. In one of our convict’s chapters, he sees the smoking, charred–and still alive–body of the man he murdered in the very first chapter. He even hears him speak. But, you know, our convict, Angel, has been out there so long in the wilderness, surviving on what? on food left out for coyotes and on unsuspecting barn cats?–that he might be beginning to lose his mind.

And I must warn you, that the concluding chapters of Appalachian Book of the Dead contain a veritable mountain picnic basket of surprises, that to talk very specifically about anything else that follows, seems like treading in some dangerous spoiler waters. But here are some questions: Will Ainsley realize her dreams of revitalizing her family’s mountain camp for girls? What might be the consequences of her brief and torrid interest in the old man and his interest in her? Why does the old man, Cal, who has been sober for seven years, ask Doyle, the caretaker of Camp Bee Tree, if he can score him some moonshine? Where is that murderous escaped convict? Who belongs here? Who does not? The pinnacle of the action in this novel, oddly enough, takes place around a kind of campfire gathering of the four main characters as they sit by a firing kiln that Doyle has engineered and constructed for Joy’s crazy pottery art. It is, perhaps, the single longest scene in the entire work–plenty of time to build steam. It is an absolutely wild ride from that point on. And answers are forthcoming, I promise. There’s some mighty karmic justice at work here in the end of Neal’s novel. It’s a satisfying ending, not much is left dangling. Appalachian Book of the Dead is a novel that brings together a lovely philosophical swirl of competing beliefs and values, an incredibly wicked landscape, and deep, vivid, believable, fully fleshed out characterization. Two thumbs up. If I had some more thumbs, I’d put them up as well.

I’d like to close, as I have over the last few episodes, with another poem by a friend of mine. On a personal note here, we’ve had significant rain in Portland, Oregon over the last few days for the first time in months. It’s been a warm, dry, summer. Fires are raging all over, but for us this year, the smoke has not reached us. The rain was welcome–and even though it’s been warm, all the autumn pyrotechnics are in full throttle. Before the sky opened up with precipitation, it was raining leaves and acorns from our giant oak trees. In a month’s time we will be buried in them. So my friend David Ruekberg, from his book Hour of the Green Light, has written this poem for the fall, “October Prayer.” It also seems fitting here today for a number of reasons. I’ll leave that open ended for you, dear listener, to play around with. From David Ruekberg’s Hour of the Green Light:

October Prayer

If a grey sky can be indicative
of a life lived in the long echo
of the snap of umbilical cord

and a farewell to the self of pure love
floating in a green light near the origins
of particle and wave,

then let leaves high in the maple
turning to their first autumn orange
be messengers of messengers

from the tallest, most foriegn
angels that death is waiting
for your next accident

and, no matter how cautious
you are, you will only ever
catch one glimpse.

Let the call of crow bobbing
in the pines be the ungainly ugliness
in your life that you must accept,

and let the digging in the yard for grubs
be your digging–acrid food
of your often-rehearsed regrets.

Crow gives way to silence
in which you hear
another kind of stirring.

Perhaps skies stretching,
preparing rain, watering
the suffering earth.

David Ruekberg

As a fiction writer, or essayist, I love poetry and in particular the poet’s close attention to the sentence. I just think that the most exquisite sentences in the English language can be found in poetry–and prose writers of all stripes, and writers, generally, whether they are pros or beginners, would do well to study the sentences of poets. I mean, this is kind of a wonky thing to talk about, but I love that the first five stanzas of this poem form a single, beautiful sentence, the next two stanzas form a single sentence, and then the last two stanzas each form their own, short little sentences, haiku-like. So this poem just has a beautiful shape, a funnel shape, or a kind of leaf-falling shape. But holy cow, more importantly and more beautifully is what the poem says–what it says about birth and death, what it says about a kind of welcoming acceptance to everything, about what is possible to hear or to understand in silence.

Thanks for reading, friends. Coming up next: I think we have to return to The Magic Mountain. Cheers!

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Filed under The Book I Read, Writing and Reading

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