{alone and hunted}

I was shocked—shocked—that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and, indeed, any Carson McCullers were not included in my so-called trusty 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I mean—really?

Despite my shock and disappointment, I blazed forward with THIaLH, a task which took the better part of this month. I read The Member of the Wedding about 10 years ago, but hadn’t tried any other McCullers and knew next to nothing about THIaLH. Warning: This isn’t a book to venture into lightly. One of the main reasons it took me forever to read is that it’s very heavy—definitely not a cozy night home alone type of book.

THIaLH is told primarily from the perspective of four main characters: Mick Kelly, a young girl who dreams of being a musician despite her tough upbringing; Jake Blount, an alcoholic wanderer searching for someone to take his theories seriously; Dr. Copeland, a black doctor who has spent his life attempting to advance his race through Marxist theory; and Biff Brannon, the owner of the local café. At the center of each of their stories is John Singer, a deaf-mute whose perspective opens and closes parts 1 and 2 of the novel. Each character is very different in their beliefs, emotions, and reactions, and McCullers uses these differences to highlight their struggles for comprehension.

Each character is drawn to Singer because only he can “listen” without judgment, giving them the acceptance and agreement they crave. Singer’s own motivations are left undisclosed—even the brief portions of text that center on him deal in only external commentary, focusing on his actions rather than his thoughts. What no one realizes (including, arguably, Singer himself) is that no one can be simply a receptacle for other people’s desires and obsessions and remain unaffected.

You going to traipse all around like you haves to find something lost. . . Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t love and don’t have peace. And then some day you going to bust loose and be ruined. Won’t nothing help you then.

McCullers’s prose is dry and raw, sometimes choppy. Her characters lead relatively simple lives and use simple vocabulary, but nothing else about them is simple—their dreams and motives are incredibly complex and often left unexplained. Again—not a book to pick up for a quick read. These characters are completely caught up in politics, racism, sexuality, alcoholism, rage, poverty, etc., and these elements interplay strongly and without resolution throughout the story.

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{epic in miniature}

Following on the heels of Blueprints of the Afterlife and Swamplandia!, the next book chosen by my college alumni nostalgic English majors book group was Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. While it’s still unclear whether I’ll be able to attend the discussion this weekend, I did read the book (it’s literally 116 pages long, I had no excuse) and am ready to record my thoughts.

Astoundingly, despite its short length and relatively simple prose, TD created such a powerful atmosphere that I found myself frequently rereading sentences, paragraphs, or even whole pages trying to figure out how Johnson did it. The story centers around Robert Grainier, who works building railroads, clearing forests, and other day labor in early 20th-century Idaho and Washington. His is not necessarily a story with a cohesive plot and defined events; rather, Johnson provides a series of random snippets from Grainier’s life. They don’t follow a set chronology or theme, but serve to invoke an overall sense of the everchanging American West so skillfully that—again—I couldn’t even tell how it was being done.

Cut off from anything else that might trouble them, the gang, numbering sometimes more than forty and never fewer than thirty-five men, fought the forest from sunrise until suppertime, felling and bucking the giant spruce into pieces of a barely manageable size, accomplishing labors, Grainier sometimes thought, tantamount to the pyramids, changing the face of the mountainsides, talking little, shouting their communications, living with the sticky feel of pitch in their beards, sweat washing the dust off their long johns and caking it in the creases of their necks and joints, the odor of pitch so thick it abraded their throats and stung their eyes, and even overlaid the stink of beasts and manure.

See? And that is just one sentence (albeit a crazy long one). A lifelong Westerner myself (who pseudo-nostalgically loved the many TD references to Spokane), I felt so strongly that this was my country. Through some crazy genius means, Denis Johnson got me to identify so completely with this Robert Grainier that I felt like I was living vicariously through him.

Seriously. If you have any interest in literary or historical fiction, read this book. Highest recommendations. If it means something to you, I told my friend that it reminded me a lot of Willa Cather. However, it’s been about three years since I read any Cather, so don’t sue me if that’s totally wrong. (Just read it.)

And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.