A man retreats from the toils of civilization,
into the Ozarks
By James Sallis
June 29, 2008
Toby Press: 226 pp., $24.95
Gene Wolfe, himself squarely among our great writers, once said that great
writers don't simply do something better than others, they do something
that no one else can do at all.
I look at this shelf of books beside my desk and almost expect the shelf,
the floor, the foundation, perhaps even the fundament of Earth itself, to
give beneath the weight of what is there: so many lives, so much history
and anticipation, so many foreign and familiar worlds caught up in there.
No, not caught -- suspended. Held lovingly. And truth to tell, I might
just as well expect shelf, room and house to rise into the air, with these
books so like clouds or bolls of cottony wind. For it's lightness, not
weight, that Arkansas novelist Donald Harington catches up in his nets:
the fragility of our lives, the fine lines we forever dodge between, the
joy that breaks from our sorrow.
There are 13 of those books on the shelf, 13 Donald Haringtons, reissued
by the Toby Press and now capped by a new novel, "Farther Along."
First, though, a disclaimer. I am a tremendous admirer of Harington's
work, a fact you might well surmise from the cover of "Farther Along,"
whereupon squats a quote from one of my columns for the Boston Globe: "Harington's
books are of a piece -- the quirkiest, most original body of work in
contemporary U.S. letters." For many years now, I've eagerly read
Harington, written about him, passed his books along, done everything but
collar strangers on the street to tell them about him. "The Choiring of
the Trees" is, quite simply, one of the finest novels I've ever read.
"With," a personal favorite, begins with a child's sexual abduction, only
to become one of the most world-embracing, life-affirming books I know.
Harington has worked at a remove both aesthetically and geographically
from the literary establishment, in the nature of true genius giving
little regard to mainstream, academic or commercial concerns, quietly
pursuing his personal vision of an America singing through its many
wounds. So when I collar that stranger on the street, when I bring up
Harington's name even among avid readers, chances are there's little
recognition. He is, as fellow novelist Fred Chappell has called him, "an
undiscovered continent." Sadly -- for us all.
It's difficult to describe what sets Harington's work apart. Superficial
aspects come easily to mind: rural Ozark setting, eccentric characters,
conflation of history and present lives, fanciful though forever demotic
language, careening points of view, an abundant sense of spiritual
presence. But the work seems finally in some manner different at heart, as
though it had issued from another time, another place. Harington is hooked
into the deepest traditions of storytelling, dipping his buckets directly
into the well it all comes from, pursuing a literature dedicated not to
documentation or self-expression, but to fascination, to lifting us out of
ourselves and the dailiness of our lives -- to making our world again
wondrous and large.
In "Farther Along," for instance, we have a man leaving city and career
behind to live in a cave like the prehistoric Ozark bluff dwellers,
complete with deerskin robe and atlatl; a woman who may or not be a woman
of the same name who died long ago; a mummified man in a glass case;
another whose fingers each have lives, opinions and voices of their own;
and, in the middle chapters, a narrator that may be either a ghost or an
internal voice -- but that we suspect is the spirit of place often evoked
in Harington's work.
Add unheralded shifts in point of view, long back stories, tasty curlicues
of digression and you have something quite aside from a quick, serviceable
read. Harington's reach is long; he refuses to simplify, wants to include,
in every sentence, every fragment of dialogue, every paragraph and
anecdote, as much of the world's marvelous complexity and abundance as
possible. Yet he does not challenge his readers so much as repeatedly
invite them to sit a spell and listen along with him.
"I lived for almost two months before the first wave of excruciating
loneliness attacked me. . . . The imagined past is always more lost and
irreplaceable than the real past. And I had no future. All I had was
now, and now was a long, unchanging, lonely moment. If, as someone
said, the moment Now exhales the past and inhales the future, then I had
chronic emphysema. A winding path led to my place among the rocks, a cave
which was a dead end, but I had neither the path nor the cave but the edge
"Farther Along" begins in the first person, ends in multiple points of
view and, for its long middle passage, surges into the second person. And
not just plain old garden-variety second person, but second person voiced
by that spirit, who is relating, to a woman who has just lost her husband,
her own story while adding its thoughts: "Half-waking, you rolled and
dropped a gentle hand down on the other pillow, and woke fully to find him
not there. You listened for the sound of the axe, his chopping, but heard
only the piping of the pre-dawn birds and the quickening of your heart."
Harington's narratives are full of such lurches, for us and for his
characters. He never allows us to become too comfortable. Nor does he
allow us to forget that it's all about stories: those we inherit, those
told to us, those we tell ourselves to be able to go on. A writer with
every bit of the playfulness and intelligence of Nabokov, he is also one
whose heart and expansive humanity rivals that of Chekhov -- a writer,
that is, who is dearly in love with his people, his place, his world, his
I hesitate, in casting about for central themes, to adopt the simplistics
that Harington himself abjures, but just as it seems to me that American
literature finds its overarching theme in the push-pull of individual and
society, frontier and city, so it seems that Harington again and again
writes about a man or woman who sails out from civilization aiming for
solitude and unwittingly discovers community.
I do not hesitate, though, to call "Farther Along" a great novel. It joins
"The Cherry Pit," "Lightning Bug," "The Architecture of the Arkansas
Ozarks," "With" and the others on my shelf: more stories than you can ever
absorb, more of the world than any of us will ever know. But it is a good
world that has in it a publisher like the Toby Press. And it is a far
better world for having Donald Harington in it.
Sit with him a spell -- a long spell. And listen. *
James Sallis is the author, most recently, of "Salt River."
Click on the WSJ graphic to go to a
wonderful and comprehensive article about DH. (Link will take you to
a copy of the article and a link to WJS.com)
A dream of a small but unlost town. by
Izzy Grinspan for
Believer Magazine. Click graphic on left for a scan of the
BOOKS: Traveling 'pitcher shows' bring
magic to hamlets in Ozarks
Henry L. Carrigan Jr. - For the Journal-Constitution
Sunday, November 6, 2005
The Pitcher Shower. By Donald Harington. Toby Press. $22.95. 216 pages.
Verdict: Another enchanting journey.
In his latest novel, Donald Harington once again leads us on an enchanting
journey into the magical mists and haunting hollers of the Arkansas Ozarks.
He captures the eccentricities and innocence of these mountain residents
much as he did in such treasures as "Lightning Bug" (1970), "The Cockroaches
of Stay More" (1989) and "Butterfly Weed" (1996).
Many of the residents of Harington's fictional postage stamp of Stay More,
Ark., make their way into "The Pitcher Shower" --- old friends back to share
another tale on the front porch.
We first met Langdon "Hoppy" Boyd, grandson of itinerant preacher Long Jack
Stapleton, in Harington's novel "When Angels Rest" (1998). Although Hoppy
inherited the Stapleton place, he has decided to live an itinerant life of
Fascinated as a child by his grandfather's ability to hold a crowd
spellbound with his lively storytelling skills, Hoppy wants badly to somehow
gratify crowds as Long Jack did. But since he is afraid to stand up in front
of a crowd to speak, and unable to speak eloquently because of a stammer,
Hoppy decides to bring happiness to the mountain towns by being their
traveling movie theater, a "pitcher shower."
Once a year, Hoppy Boyd announces his arrival in the hollers and villages of
the Ozarks with a blow of his bugle. When folks hear his call, they come
running, clamoring for details of the shows Hoppy has brought with him, and
anxious to escape their own workaday worlds for a short time to Hoppy's
magical world of shoot'em-ups with Hopalong Cassidy.
After a week in town, lots of boys and young women beg Hoppy to take them
along as apprentices in his itinerant movie trade. Fearful of women and
watchful of his independence, though, Hoppy rejects all such pleas as he
rides off into the noonday sun, looking for the next town.
His simple life ends suddenly one day when he discovers that a young boy,
Carl, has stowed away in his truck. Ready to call the local law and return
the child to his parents, Hoppy eventually relents when he discovers that
the youngster has talents that can draw people to the shows.
But after Hoppy takes Carl under his wing, the boy turns out to be Sharline,
a pretty teenage girl runaway who has uncanny talents in the arts of
juggling, magic and love --- and in the art of entrepreneurship. Not only
does she sell tickets to the shows, she also acts as a magician's assistant,
entrances audiences with her scarf dance, narrates the writing on the screen
for those who can't read, and sets up a "concessionary" at the shows to sell
popcorn and candy.
All seems well until an itinerant evangelist steals Hoppy's films, leaving
him to show reels of an unfamiliar movie called "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
While some members of the audience hoot and holler because it doesn't have
the action and adventure of the Hopalong Cassidy films, others are
captivated and delighted by the story of star-crossed lovers and their fairy
Through a series of misadventures, Hoppy and Sharline's lives become a
mini-version of the movie. Much like Shakespeare's Prospero in "The
Tempest," the narrator magically controls the lives of the characters in his
The book's final chapter serves as a kind of epilogue --- as in
Shakespeare's plays --- in which the narrator provides an account of the
"pitcher show" of Hoppy and Sharline's life and other "pitcher shows" past
and future that might feature them and their friends and families.
In much the way that Hoppy's pitchers cast their magic spell on the
inhabitants of the Ozark mountain towns through which he travels,
Harington's brilliant and hilarious new novel will cast its magic spell over
Former Atlantan Henry L. Carrigan Jr. lives in Lancaster, Pa.