Arkansas novelist Donald Harington has tilled
his corner of the Ozarks for nearly 40 years, and the soil shows no signs of
exhaustion. His yarns defy classification -- one reason you haven't seen
them on a rack at your neighborhood supermarket. They combine old-fashioned,
down home storytelling with postmodern, Nabokovian trickery. One of them,
"The Cockroaches of Stay More," is told entirely from the point of view of
those pesky insects -- and that's just a warm-up, as it turns out, for the
cross-species communication in Harington's latest novel, "With."
The opening is apt to fool us. It reads like a supermarket novel, except
that the first chapter seems to be narrated by a dog, and the prose has
overtones of sophistication we don't often hear in genre literature. A
former state trooper, Sugrue Alan, plots to kidnap a 7- year-old girl, Robin
Kerr, and live with her on an inaccessible mountaintop where the Madewell
family once had a cooperage, cutting white-oak staves to make barrels and
churns. Alan stocks the Madewells' old cabin with supplies and justifies his
pedophilic urges by calling Robin his "true love."
After we're all aboard, what appears to be a suspense novel jumps the
tracks. Alan sickens and dies. The crime story turns into an improbable but
richly detailed epic of survival. Rainstorms wash out the trails up Madewell
Mountain. Robin has no source of information beyond the Bible and an 1880s
manual on farming and housekeeping; no companions except frankly
anthropomorphic animals -- dogs, beavers, chickens, a bobcat, a bear cub, a
deer -- and the "in-habit" of 12- year-old Adam Madewell, who used to live
An "in-habit," Harington explains, isn't a ghost. Adam is still alive, in
his late 30s, working in the wineries of California. But he left Arkansas
reluctantly, and a part of his spirit remains, haunting the cooperage,
learning the animals' languages, whispering advice in Robin's ear.
That a child, even a very intelligent child, could not only endure 11 years
of cold, drought and wilderness hazards but also educate herself and stay in
excellent physical and mental health -- well, we have no choice but to
suspend disbelief and conclude that Harington has written a fable, however
buttressed with facts about the natural world and traditional crafts. It's a
fable with echoes of the Garden of Eden and "Lolita," often bawdy and comic
but, at bottom, a meditation on an old Ozark hymn's promise that after the
sufferings of our lives "we'll understand it all by and by."
When Robin reaches 18, she's ready for love. She loves Adam -- but the
spectral Adam is still only 12, and the corporeal Adam, even if he returns
to Arkansas, would seem to be too old. It takes many pages and no end of
cleverness for Harington to resolve this dilemma, but if he wearies us a
little, he also exposes us to one of America's rarer literary sensibilities.
You could call Donald
Harington the Vladimir Nabokov of the Arkansas Ozarks. And if you think that
has an odd ring to it, you ain't heard nothing yet.
Harington's 12th novel, "With," is many
things: a crime story, a love story and a ghost story. It is a tale of
survival and a homage to the natural world. It is a literary tour de force
that takes readers on a wild ride -- emphasis on the wild.
"With" starts out like "Lolita," then detours
through Swiss Family Robinson before allowing its Odysseus to get back home
to his true love. It sounds wacky and it is, but here's the thing, here's
the marvelous thing: It works. And here's the unfortunate thing: This book's
very inventiveness is probably going to prevent it from getting the
attention it deserves. The literary hipsters will snort that this is pure
fantasy, but what I see is a powerful and utterly unique imagination.
Your first tip-off that you are not reading
your run-of-the-mill love story occurs on page two, when you realize that
the first chapter is seen through the eyes of a dog. A very smart, observant
dog, but a dog nonetheless -- other points of view include those of a
bobcat, a ghost and a few flesh and blood humans. This is the opening salvo
of Harington's imagination guns. Now, this isn't a humanized talking dog a
la "Animal Farm." Herapha (that's the dog's true name, though her master
just calls her Bitch) is fascinating for her dogginess. You come away from
Herapha's chapters feeling as if you know what it's like to be in the head
of a dog, a real dog.
Herapha's master is another reason the book
may not garner all the praise it should. Sog (that's short for Sugrue) Alan
is a retired Arkansas state trooper and a pedophile. He's the linchpin for
the book's plot, which is that he has stocked an impenetrably remote
abandoned mountaintop farmstead with enough food and supplies to last until
the farm can become self-sufficient. He plans to kidnap a little girl and
take her there to be his, well, "wife" is the way his sick mind describes
it. I nearly stopped reading here because Harington is as good at getting in
the head of a pedophile as he is with dogs. There are no graphic scenes, but
it's almost sickening.
Sog accomplishes his plan and 7-year-old Robin
Kerr winds up at the farm with no idea how to run away. Fortunately, Sog is
dying from chronic disease that prevents him from doing more harm to Robin
than the brutalization of removing her from family and all other
civilization. Sog is soon dispatched, and the real story gets going: the
tale of Robin's survival with the help of a whole menagerie, many of which
communicate with the reader through internal monologue. There's Herapha and
her pups; a bobcat (named, of course, Robert); a raccoon; a king snake; a
deer; and a bear. Oh, and there's a ghost. (I told you this was wild.)
Actually, it's not a ghost exactly. It's an
in-habit, the presence of a person who is still alive but who left a part of
his spirit at the farm he loved so. The in-habit (always italicized) is Adam
Madewell, who moved with his family to California but who so cherished the
mountain site that some of his essence remained. Because he was or is (tense
is so iffy with in-habits) a hardscrabble farm boy and knows the crafts of
fields and woods, he helps Robin a lot. Over the years, they become close,
very close. There's a nice first love scene, which is tricky given that one
of the partners isn't really there. Again, Harington's convincing
All the while that Robin is turning into a
beautiful nature woman, Harington is working to get Adam's grown self back
to Arkansas from California, where he's become a big success in the wine
I know it sounds far-fetched, but Harington's
imagination is thoroughly up to the task and "With" is absolutely
Another delight of this novel is that
Harington has perfect pitch when it comes to mountain dialect, which is yet
another thing the hipsters will probably find distasteful. They will find it
far too local when Adam refers to his "overhauls" or uses "allus" for
always. But it's dead-on and used lightly.
Robin's plucky character keeps the novel
moving and keeps you interested. You're cheering for her the whole way as
she turns from feisty 7-year-old to a wise-beyond-her-years young adult.
Harington winks to the reader with some
literary funny business concerning tense shifts as the grown, present-day
Adam approaches the farm and his past self. As Adam stumbles up the rough
trail toward the farm, the tense becomes present and the point of view
shifts from third person to first person. Adam thinks, "This is not merely
present tense, it is present tense first person singular, and I having
reached my haunt have come at long last into full possession of myself."
That's a little postmodern metafiction move that ought to please the most
with-it of literati, but I fear it won't be enough.
Harington has been called "America's greatest
unknown novelist" and the darn shame of "With" is that he may remain so.
This is a clever, sensual, empathetic and, above all, moving book, and it
should have lots of readers, but there's probably too much Arkansas and one
too many talking dogs for that.
Postscript from the Author
"The title, "With," among its numerous
allusions and connotations, refers to all of the creatures who are *with*
the heroine, Robin, and I wanted the story to be seen from quite a number of
perspectives other than hers.
Of course it requires a lot of imagination to
get inside the head of a dog, and in my case that imagination had to be
augmented with a lot of research into written accounts of the way dogs
think, the way their thought processes behave, and what is uniquely "doggy"
in their point of view. There is, for example, the dog's sense of minding,
which doesn't mean obeying the master but rather having the ability to get
inside the master's mind (just as I have got inside the dog's mind) in order
to understand the master's behavior and speech and commands. Although it
isn't called such in any of my research sources, this sense of minding is
well-noted among canines and is the primary reason they get along so well
with human beings."
Harington is a novelist who simply will not behave, insisting
upon writing about fictional small towns in forsaken corners of the Ozarks
and relating stories from the viewpoints of roaches, dogs, and ghosts. He
pretty much does all that in his latest novel, "With," published by Toby
Press. It joins "The Choiring of the Trees," "Some Other Place. The Right
Place," and "The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks" as among the best of
many fine novels produced by Harington, and may be, for all its expansive
humanity, his finest yet.
Spinning great webs of narrative, yielding not a stitch to
tenets of modernism or to commercial concerns, Harington is at once a
novelist of the grand tradition and a novelist out of his time, a tale
teller who might have appeared more seemly in, say, a late-Victorian drawing
I have great fun imagining the editorial meeting on this one
when the manuscript came into a prospective publisher's office. "OK, it's
about this child molester who kidnaps an 8-year-old girl. So he takes her to
a remote cabin. The dog, who, as it happens, speaks, but only its name,
comes along. I have this right so far? Then this guy Sugrue gets sick and
she winds up shooting him dead while he's in the outhouse? So she grows up
with the dog, a raccoon, a snake, and a bobcat. . . .They all talk, too, I
guess? Yeah, sure they do. So, anyway, she grows up there, with all these
animals, and she spends a lot of time with Adam Madewell too, who isn't
exactly a ghost, but a . . . well, what exactly is he?"
Like all Harington's novels, "With" moves at its end into
future tense. And it's here that the tale teller, one voice among many
voices we have carried in our head for almost 500 pages now, leans in close
to speak most directly to us.
The principal knot of this whole narrative will not of
necessity have been our love story, but the more intricate knot of a girl's
passage into womanhood in a condition of isolation and seclusion from the
mundane milieux of society. The untying of that knot,
consequently, will be a matter of that woman's decision either to remain in
seclusion or to allow herself to accept and to receive certain satisfactions
from the outside world.
"With," in short, is a novel about everything that matters.
To my fictive editor's query regarding Adam Madewell, "What
exactly is he?," I would reply: a great character. As are they all, man and
beast alike. As "With" is a great novel. If any more life-affirming, more
surprising, more beautifully written novel has been published in recent
years, I've missed it.
WITH, by Donald Harington. Toby Press.
491 pages. $19.95.
In The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach
illustrated a nearly exhaustive range of keys, styles and textures,
and made great music doing it. In his 12th novel, With, Don Harington
plumbs the resources of the novel form, from grammar and syntax --
pronouns, verb tenses -- to topics such as the missing father and
genres such as animal fable, ghost story and Biblical myth. Nearly
hobbled by its own elaborate intentions, With transforms its
self-imposed limitations and becomes a rare entertainment.
Like most of Harington's novels, With
chronicles the Ozark village of Stay More, now little more than a
ghost town. The main character is Robin, a young girl kidnapped by a
just-retired cop and abandoned after his death to grow up alone on a
secluded mountaintop in the Ozarks -- alone, that is, except for a
continuously expanding family of animals and the ghost-like genius of
the place, most of whom have ingeniously distinct voices that carry
their own chapters.
Robin's dirty old man does not live to
enjoy the fruit of his labor (the scene of his demise is a kind of
sinless Original Sin) and the novel turns into a coming-of-age story.
Robin's sexual awakening is portrayed
with both tact and sensuous delight -- and ingenuity, for Robin's only
companions are animals, delightfully and shrewdly individualized, and
the ghost of a boy named Adam who once lived there. Adam represents a
serious attempt by Harington to embody the haunting power of place in
human identities. In scenes that charm with an Elizabethan frankness,
Adam becomes Robin's first love and contains the secret of her fate.
As for Robin, she was "proud of her
imagination, whether it simply took the form of giving names to her
pair of mourning doves, Sigh and Sue, or, as she had been doing for
some time, rewriting the Bible in her mind to make the stories more
interesting." For Harington, the imagination is sacred and defines the
individual rather than vice-versa.
Beyond the episodic adventures of Robin
and her animals, the supreme pleasure of this novel is to watch
Harington turn literary problems into literary pleasures, disdaining
once again to play it safe. Above all, he is among our most daring
Tom D'Evelyn is a freelance editorial
consultant in Providence.