Writer's Block

March 11, 2006; Page P10

The Pitcher Shower
By Donald Harington
Toby, 202 pages, $22.95

Donald Harington has published 13 novels, beginning in 1965, with seven publishers, which tells you a good deal about both the author and the publishing industry: The author is tenacious and sure of his craft, and the publishers are just as resolute in going for the bottom line every time. Mr. Harington has also had eight agents, whom he has described as being for the most part "rude, indifferent or downright mean."

Mr. Harington, a professor of art history at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, has never found a wide audience, though in literary circles he
enjoys a fan base that includes William Styron, his mentor, and the horror master Peter Straub. Mr. Harington himself mentored a young writer named John Irving, who went on to considerable fame, starting in 1978 with "The World According to Garp."

Mr. Harington's latest publisher, Toby Press, has taken up his cause; in the past couple of years, Toby has brought out new editions of half a dozen previous novels and published two more, including the author's latest, "The Pitcher Shower." The book is set in the Arkansas Ozarks and concerns a Depression-era traveling movie projectionist, Landon "Hoppy" Boyd, who sets up shop under the stars, projecting his westerns featuring Hopalong Cassidy on whatever flat surface comes to hand -- until his movies are stolen by a preacher who rails against the evils of "pitcher shows."

When Boyd then comes into possession of a print of director Max Reinhardt's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935), the book gets downright quirky. Characters in the novel begin acting like characters in the play as the "real" and "reel" worlds intermingle. But this is more than a literary stunt; Mr. Harington uses the conceit to show us how the strength of love and dreams can heal the soul. The narrator, after a particularly vivid scene between Boyd and his romantic interest, Sharline, says: "A long while later, as they still lay in a tight embrace, their sweat beginning to cool and dry in the afternoon as a breeze began to waft through their glade, she commented, 'Boy howdy, that was the nicest. That was just too nice.'"

Boyd is a native of Mr. Harington's fictional Ozarks hamlet, Stay More, Ark., which the author rendered in fine detail in 1975 with his seminal novel, "The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks" (a title that surely confused potential book buyers). In that bawdy comic novel, which spans 140 years, Mr. Harington gives us the Ingledew clan, one of whom ends up as governor of Arkansas. But you don't have to be from Arkansas to appreciate the tales of Stay More, any more than you need to know Mississippi in order to savor Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. "Architecture" opens with the
arrival of the Ingledew brothers, Jacob and Noah, who have walked 600 miles from Tennessee to scratch out a town in an Arkansas valley -- setting off a mythic tall tale in a book that has aged well since its introduction three decades ago. (And, yes, there is architecture: Mr. Harington's drawings present a sort of history of Ozarks housing.)

Given that he lost most of his hearing at the age of 12 to meningitis, Mr. Harington seems to have resolved that if he can't hear the music of conversation, then he'll just make words dance on the page. Through the years, he has consistently turned out lyrical and entertaining comic novels. Mr. Harington has said that his model as a writer is Vladimir Nabokov, and he turns the "Lolita" story on its head in "Ekaterina" (1993), about a woman from Soviet Georgia who escapes to the Ozarks to write and indulge her obsession with pubescent boys. The premise might have posed a challenge for some readers, but at least the novel had its clear Nabokovian overtones to fall back on. Mr. Harington dared a bit more in setting up "With" (2004), in which a man kidnaps a seven-year-old girl and takes her away to an isolated cabin in the Ozarks. Many publishers, Mr. Harington has said, rejected the novel out of hand because of the alarming premise (Toby Press published it), even though the young girl outwits and outlasts the monster.

Mr. Harington knew that he had at least one enthusiastic response to "Some Other Place. The Right Place" (1972). He received a fan letter from a woman named Kim praising this tale of a Sarah Lawrence graduate who falls in love with an awkward 18-year-old Eagle Scout as she helps him investigate ghost towns and the possibility that he's the reincarnation of a hell-raising forebear. Mr. Harington responded to the letter and eventually married its author.

"Some Other Place" is not centered on Stay More, Ark., one of the few Harington novels not rooted in the Ozarks. But even though he returns often to Stay More, the stories he tells are hardly predictable. In "The Cockroaches of Stay More" (1989), the characters are the cockroaches who live in the dying town and take on the names and personalities of the humans who once lived there.

If there is a common thread to be found in such powerfully imaginative work, it would be the transformative quality of love, a quality so strong that it can make a man who hates himself feel worthwhile. It is not much of a stretch to say that a love for what he does is what keeps Mr. Harington
going. He has been operating on the margins of a big success for more than 30 years, showered with ecstatic reviews but not too many greenbacks, and yet his will to produce more work never seems to flag.

"Every novelist writes secondarily for money or movies or Mother," Mr. Harington once wrote. "Every novelist writes primarily for approval, for praise, for honor, for love. But the world of readers is stingy with its esteem, fickle with its favor, and short with its memory. The shelves of the guestroom, as well as the shelves of the public library and the secondhand bookshop, become a mausoleum, waiting for your breath upon the open page to resurrect the defunct author."


Mr. Gray is the editor of the Books and Perspective sections at the Arkansas
Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock.  URL for this
article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114202580803195130.html

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