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Don Harington listens to Arkansas with his heart and his memories

Fayetteville writer Donald Harington talks about writing like a man born to his craft. He wrote his first (11-page ) book when he was 6 years old. As a young man he finished a novel that would never be published, and so he wrote another one (The Cherry Pit, 1965), then 12 more. Now, at age 69, the summers - the time when he's not teaching art history classes at the University of Arkansas - are when he writes. He gets up in the morning looking forward to it, and he's generally done by noon, leaving time for research after lunch.
    Circumstances that would have permanently discouraged a dabbler have proven to be little more than inconveniences, sometimes even advantages, for Harington. He has had seven publishers for his 13 published books. Eight agents whom he describes, as a group, as overall "rude, indifferent or downright mean."
    And if you've done so much as peruse a Harington book jacket, you know that this author, who was raised in Little Rock and spent his summers at his mother's hometown of Drakes Creek in Madison County, lost his hearing at age 12 to meningitis. The year was 1948, and he remembers the time vividly.
    "The summer I lost my hearing, I had a long recuperation at home in Little Rock, so I was pretty late getting to Drakes Creek, and I was very nervous about what it would be like to see my Drakes Creek friends, not being able to talk to them. And I was amazed to discover, as soon as I got there, that the most familiar sound of Drakes Creek outside the window at night - the sound of crickets, tree frogs, cicadas - I could hear it just fine. But it was tinnitus. Tinnitus is the name for subjective, imaginary auditory experiences. And though I'd completely lost my hearing, it was replaced by tinnitus . the sounds of the summer night. It's remained in my ear all my life."
    SOUNDS OF THE COUNTRY Drakes Creek was to become the basis for Stay More, the mythical backwoods community that serves as the setting for many of Harington's novels.
    Those sounds of the summer night are not all Harington's ear remembers about Drakes Creek. "Spending time in both places gave me an appreciation for the distinction, which no longer exists, between Little Rock language and Drakes Creek language," Harington says. "Nowadays, because of the influence of television and radio, everybody sounds alike, more or less. Radio and television was just beginning to come in, and there was an enormous distinction between the way people talked out in the Ozarks and the way they talked in town. Losing my hearing at that particular date embedded the language into my memory. I can still hear these people, the way they sounded in 1948."
    Well, there's something unusual going on with the strange and utterly satisfying language to be found in Harington's books. Bring together the combined city and country upbringing and the sudden cessation of Harington's ability to hear joined with whatever mystery it is that creates a writer's ear, and you have: "If that don't beat all. If that don't skin the mule and hang up the hide." Which is only a point to the colorfulness of Harington's language, an achievement that comes part and parcel with lyricism and comedic timing.
    WRITING ON In 2005, Harington is still teaching art history classes at the university, and he's still getting up to write on summer mornings. His latest, The Pitcher Shower, is out this month, nearly 60 years since Harington last heard a word.
    Obstacles are made irrelevant or are worked to his advantage. If it's a hallmark of talent, or calling, then maybe another is clarity. Harington is entirely turned off by any sense of pretentiousness or, especially, deliberate obscurity in writing. "People who confuse profundity with obscurity really, really irritate me," Harington says. "[The idea that by] being very elaborate and baroque and Faulknerian you can seem to be profound."
    Harington's novels are about country people. It's clear that he likes his characters, and he's capable of portraying their individuality rather than romanticized pastoral stereotypes. Harington finds the rural "sense of stubborn independence" appealing, he says.
    "Country people don't like to be told what to do. They don't like to follow a leader. They like to follow their own whims and their own urges, but they are fiercely stubborn and independent. And they also have a great closeness with nature, a great appreciation for things around them in nature. A sense of getting up in the morning with something to do and doing it, and going to bed satisfied at night. I think country people are closer to the change of the seasons, the cycles of the earth, than city people. And I think they're also aware of the fact that they've been left behind by civilization, but instead of feeling inferior about it, they gloat in the fact . they delight in their own innocence."
    A horror of the merely pedantic and a predilection for country characters do nothing to obviate the epic themes and symbolism that still manage to make their way into Harington's books. He talks in characteristically accessible terms, and authoritative demeanor, about what his books mean.
    "A novel that a lot of people think is a nonfiction book is Let Us Build Us a City, which is about 11 ghost towns in Arkansas," Harington says. "They all have 'City' as part of their name, but none of them ever become a city. There's a theme of lostness and ambition and yearning for something that you never achieve. All of those things somehow find their way into Let Us Build Us a City."
    LIVING MEMORIES "Some Other Place, The Right Place was about this young couple who explore four ghost towns in Connecticut, Vermont, and North Carolina, and they wind up in Stay More, Ark., although I disguise it as Stick Around. That's where they wind up and the whole idea of the novel is the concept that these ghost towns are symbolic of lost places in the heart that all of us have. Hidden places in our own soul that we need to somehow get in touch with."
    The Pitcher Shower is about a real phenomenon Harington remembers from boyhood days in Drakes Creek: pitcher (as in "moving picture") showers traveling around and presenting films on makeshift outdoor screens to rural communities. Two real pitcher showers, Captain Thomson and the Stigler Brothers, make it into The Pitcher Shower as competitors of Hoppy, the hero of the novel. Harington supplemented his memory with some of that afternoon research.
    "When I started researching The Pitcher Shower, I put a notice in all the little county newspapers saying I'm doing this book about pitcher showers, and I wanted to hear from anybody who remembered them. I got quite a response from country people who remembered the pitcher showers, and they gave me a lot of information . details about what kind of seats they had and what refreshments they had . all of the background information that I use in The Pitcher Shower I got from actual people. And then I just stumbled upon this fabulous 1935 movie A Midsummer Night's Dream, with James Cagney as Puck. I decided right then and there I had to put this in the book somehow."
    So Hoppy stumbles upon the movie that Harington stumbled upon while flipping the channels on the TV one night, and the result is literary gold. One could say that Harington was lucky to find that movie at that time, but maybe it's more accurate to say that there's luck, and there's being able to take advantage of luck when it comes your way. Maybe it's just another one of those hallmarks.

Melissa King, author of She's Got Next, lives in Fayetteville.

This story was published Sunday, September 11, 2005


From the The Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Fayetteville writer Donald Harington's latest, The Pitcher Shower, doesn't land us in his fabled Arkansas backwoods town of Stay More, but rather the slightly less remote towns all around it as we follow the antics of Landon "Hoppy" Boyd. A Stay More native, Hoppy is a Depression-era traveling man who earns a modest living going to different small towns in the Ozark Mountains and showing westerns from a film projector rigged to the back of his truck. The title of the book is "pitcher" shower because it's what all the characters call a movie: a pitcher (not picture) show. The word is spelled correctly in the book only when it's written on signs.

    When Hoppy arrives, in his black 10-gallon cowboy hat, juggling and doing magic tricks before the show, he creates a stir at the "twelve pretty little towns on his circuit, from Osage in the north to Ozark in the south, Wesley in the west to Tilly in the east." The townsfolk wait for him like Christmas, and every place he goes, he reconnects with memorable store owners, children and would-be girlfriends. The ladies, even the "clock stoppers," never make much romantic headway with Hoppy, bogged down as he is by self-hatred of everything from his inability to tell a story and his fear of heights to the way the audiences (unjustifiably, to his mind) adore him.

    Hoppy hates himself most of all for his love-making skills, or rather the lack thereof. He's his own worst enemy, blind to his humorous and decent self, and his existence is a lonely one until he's captivated by the multitalented and irrepressible Sharline, who maneuvers her way into his life through a surefire combination of sex appeal, manipulation and making herself "terrible useful right off the bat."

A LITTLE PECULIAR

Hoppy spends a week in each of the towns on his circuit and gives a nightly showing of a serial western and Hopalong Cassidy feature that are sure crowd-pleasers. Things are running along fairly smoothly until Hoppy and Sharline lose the films. Desperate for something to show the expectant audience in the next town, they get their hands on a copy of Max Reinhardt's 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream. Everything gets a little peculiar from there. Life imitates art (as it has throughout the novel . Hoppy can make it rain with one of his westerns), and Hoppy begins to be a little uncertain himself about what's real, and what's just a dream.

    It's a testament to Harington's skill that his characters might remind one of psychological universals. Hoppy suffers from low self-esteem. Brother Emmett Binns, a circuit-riding preacher reminiscent of a Flannery O'Connor creation, is plaintive and pleading one moment, threatening and violent the next, shamelessly hypocritical, paranoid, unfettered by the boundaries of good manners or even a modicum of decency. Clearly he has a personality disorder. Hoppy and Sharline have their own "Love Language"; they speak the tongue of good country people, showing their love by being useful, direct and gentle.

    And that Sharline, she's obviously a "rules" girl who'd never have to read the book. She is Hoppy's and yet she is her own, too: wild, adventurous, unstoppable. When someone asks Hoppy where Sharline is, he says, with every reason to believe she's up to no good, "Damned if I know. That gal has a mind of her own." It's Hoppy's job to learn to be Sharline's "truelove" without trying to suppress what's fabulous about her, even when she hurts him. He takes to it pretty well, decent and honest as he is.

    Sharline and Hoppy are a love story on the grand scale, a potent mix of vulnerability, openness, clear-sightedness and accountability that makes these two, and so many of Harington's characters, universal and at the same time utterly original. Harington achieves some hilarious moments when Hoppy watches A Midsummer Night's Dream for the first time, and it's magical that, by the time Hoppy starts "talking Shakespeare," the reader knows him so well that he can't help but be tickled by Hoppy's take on Lysander's famous quote "The course of true love never did run smooth." Hoppy reflects that "Any fool knew that to be the truth," having had the maxim proven to him firsthand. These seven or so pages of Hoppy and Sharline discovering Shakespeare are flawless: true to character and perfectly timed, with Harington never making the mistake of confusing ignorant with unintelligent.

    The book is sure to satisfy Harington's readers who can't get enough of Stay More, Arkansas. One wouldn't call it "plot-driven" ; one would call it "lyrical." There is not much suspense, or even much tension for the reader beyond wanting to chase down Binns and wondering if Hoppy and Sharline will stay together.

    A quibble: The Pitcher Shower's narrator is never identified, and this all-knowing yarn spinner - who, from his language, obviously lives in the Stay More area - is a bit uneven, at times sounding like Hoppy himself, and at other times sounding more proper and distant. Which is not to say that Harington doesn't use his narrator to delightful effect. There is a moment in those flawless seven pages when the narrator himself starts "talking Shakespeare," and it's nothing short of delicious.

    And there's another set of perfect pages, by the way, when the girlfriend's boyfriend's girlfriend arrives on the scene. If you plan to read the book, you might as well go ahead and start looking forward to it now.

    The Pitcher Shower is slim compared to Harington's previous tomes. It ends with a preview of coming attractions for Hoppy and Sharline, references to Harington's earlier books (themselves called "pitcher shows" here), and mentions of some of the more well-known Stay More residents. The reader comes away with the impression that in 2005- 40 years and 13 books since Harington published his first novel - this writer is far from finished exploring the nooks and crannies of the Stay More state of mind. And Harington's readers will very much hope that he is not through, after romping through this powerful and bawdy meditation on the transcendent powers of love, dreams and pitcher shows. Author shares thoughts on the novel "Nabokov. If you haven't read Lolita, you must. You must read Pale Fire . any of his great short stories. I think he's just a fabulous artist and my number one favorite."

    "James Agee is a much greater writer than Faulkner."

    "William Styron was my mentor and had tremendous influence on me. I think Styron is a tremendous artist."

    "Fred Chappell. He writes novels similar to mine but set in the Appalachian Mountains instead of the Ozark Mountains. I think Fred Chappell is probably the greatest novelist of my generation."

    "There's a new novel by a young unknown called The Year The Music Changed. It's a fabulous book. It's heartbreaking . about the correspondence between a 14-year-old-girl and Elvis Presley . it'll just blow you away. Diane Thomas is the author."


This story was published Sunday, September 11, 2005


Novel hero brings bard to the Ozarks


Review by SUSAN HALL-BALDUF

September 4, 2005

I ain't'a gonna study war no more.

The last three books I read were about war. The last movie I saw was about war: "The Great Raid" -- good movie, but enough with the war.

So I was glad to stretch out with Donald Harington's charming, low-key "The Pitcher Shower."

It's not "pitcher" as in "pitcher of lemonade," nor "shower" as in "pour pitcher over someone's head." It's about a man who shows moving pictures -- a guy who travels from one tiny Ozarks town to the next with Hopalong Cassidy flicks. Ten cents for adults, a nickel for kids -- the ticket price is sometimes too high for folks during the Depression, but this particular
pitcher shower has a soft heart.

Help him hang the glazed sheets he uses as a screen, round up some tomato crates he can turn into benches and he'll let you in for free.

His name is Landon Boyd, but he goes by the nickname Hoppy, just like the famous movie cowboy.

Eagerly anticipated and greeted with rapture, Hoppy comes around once a year with five full-length movies and a 12-part serial.

He also travels with a single-reel secret, "Assortment," which has naked people cavorting in every way you can imagine -- and you can probably imagine a lot more than poor innocent Hoppy.

Though audiences love him -- he also juggles and does magic tricks before shows -- he has proved himself a miserable failure with women. Both times.

But this trip is different.

Through a series of comical, yet oddly logical, mishaps, Hoppy finds romance, tangles with an itinerant preacher, loses his cowboy reels and ends up showing a lot of illiterate hill people the version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that starred Jimmy Cagney as Bottom the Weaver.

Now, here is where you expect me, the snooty reviewer who spells her college major "theatre," to say something patronizing about the glory of Shakespeare transcending even the meagerest minds' ability to comprehend, like, real big Elizabethan words.

Forsooth. I was enchanted by Harington's gentle irony, his whimsical characters and their romantic complications -- beware of women who know to call each other "Thou troll! Thou painted maypole!" -- and, I admit it, by the transcending glory of Shakespeare.

"The Pitcher Shower" takes the reader back to the day when movies were magical, sex was mysterious and war was very far away. It made for a lovely afternoon.

SUSAN HALL-BALDUF is a Free Press copy editor.

Copyright C 2005 Detroit Free Press Inc.


From Booklist

 by FRANK SENNETT

Harington, Donald. The Pitcher Shower. Sept. 2005. 216p. Toby, $22.95
(1-59264-123-7).
This sweet, lyrical tale of a late-blooming loner finds Harington circling back around the Ozarks town of Stay More, whose lives and times he's faithfully chronicled for a good many years now. Landon "Hoppy" Boyd is a young projectionist-or "pitcher shower," as he calls himself-and Stay More is both hometown and hub on his circuit of the pre-television era sticks. He calls himself Hoppy because he only shows Hopalong Cassidy features, plus a childhood accident left him with a limp. So he dons a ten-gallon hat and wows farm families with oaters that unspool like magic from the back of his white truck, Topper. This ultimate outsider's life changes both for better and worse when he picks up a stowaway and then loses his movies to a roving preacher. But this is a novel about the art of storytelling as much as it is about Hoppy himself. As his grandfather once told him, "They's not exactly any trick. But words is little miracles, don't ye know? If you use 'em right, you can do anything with 'em." Harrington knows, and we're the luckier for it.

 


From The Boston Globe

Shivering typewriters, 'Martian' favorites (Excerpt)

May 22, 2005

By JAMES SALLIS

...to conclude our tasty buffet we have the tastiest of all: 'The Pitcher Shower, by Donald Harington, due in September. This new novel is published by Toby Press, which brought out last year's ''With" -- my choice for novel of the year, incidentally -- and which has committed to reissuing all Harington's work.

Regular readers of this column know well my admiration for Harington, whom I believe to be among our finest writers, one whose work, though for some time now sadly overlooked, will endure long after the award winners and current critical darlings have passed from our ken.

Relatively short, set in the 1940s and, like most of his work, in and around the fabled Ozark town of Stay More, this novel, Harington's 13th, gives us Landon Boyd in full bounce among the 12 towns to which he travels showing cowboy movies. He pretends to be Hopalong Cassidy, going by the name of ''Hoppy," even calling the truck out of whose bed he shows the films ''Topper" in imitation of Hoppy's horse. The women and kids love him, of course. But like the real Hoppy, he always winds up riding off into the sunset alone.

And now, since Preacher Binns, figuring to save all them folk from themselves, from Landon, and from the temptations of modern life, has stolen his Hoppy film, he's going to have to somehow whip up interest in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream," the only film available. Not to mention that his new ride-along, Carl, well, Carl's really Sharline . . .

Words are little miracles, Landon's grandfather told him; you can do anything with them. As Landon waits to sell tickets, he juggles and performs magic tricks: small lies before the large; pintsized miracles. And the silver screen (''just a pair of alabastine-coated bedsheets sewn together") -- what miracles are wrought there! Harington's latest novel is a meditation on faith and belief, and on dreams: those that flicker and pass on the large screen and those of far lesser wattage that shine dimly, though eternally, within us.


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