Bruce McGinnis's first novel, "The Fence," spatters the reader with words, like a hound shaking dry. Set in the vast platter of north-central Texas, the book describes a struggle to establish human limits, mental and physical, in an awesomely limitless landscape. McGinnis writes with splashing rivers of sentences which sometimes run out of control, and his themes are often confused or bludgeoned home with little subtlety. But north Texas is not a subtle place, and "The Fence" is a moving work - a warm wind in a world of cold urban fiction.
Mavis Ansley is the fencemaker. More mad than stubborn, he is a hardscrabble farmer whose melon crop has been trampled by his neighbor Gort's cattle. A judge has awarded him $50 and three cows in damages, but for Mavis the violation of his land transcends economics. He decides to fence in his farm.
A four-foot-high obsession, the fence snakes farther each day across the muslin-colored Texas soil.Each new stone Mavis sets is a step toward immortality , "something I have made with my own hands and will, something that was not there before, something better and more lasting so that I can feel its life as deep as my own. . . ."
McGinnis's book is compiled of a series of personal chapters, each told by someone whose life the fence has touched. For Gort, a gentle man who is no villain, the fence is a sneer he cannot understand. For Olene, Mavis's wife, it is a robber who steals the man she loves and replaces him with a pineyed madman who sleeps in his clothes and barely eats. For others, it is a mere annoyance or a conversation piece.
But always the fence is a point of reference in a landscape where nature dwarfs humans. It limits action, acts as barrier and opportunity, and even provides a measure of time - potstove philosophers speak of "before the fence" and "after the fence." The fence, implacable, eventually sparks a chain of death and abandonment both terrifying and cathartic, exploring in the end limits of human endurance.
"The Fence" is a first try, and it reads like one. Faulkner's hand is heavy in both structure and prose, but McGinnis cannot quite manage the Faulknerian trick of wringing complex metaphysical musings from backwoods farmers.
Then there is McGinnis's style. Occasional sentences drip embarrassingly: ". . . now become archaic in reverse, decaying in Time's flow, maintaining only the dead gesture, having lost in backward transition the honor and glory and pride of the original. . . ." But ultimately wordiness is the book's greatest strength. The endless prairie draws buckets of thought from men trying to grasp its space, and a good prairie writer knows the language of the land is not spare:
It is a beautiful place where you can sit in a chair in the evening,. . . with the bullbats crossing the moon, dipping and darting after what only they can see, graceful and quick and sure, making you know they belong to the air, as surely as you were meant for the earth, confirming your right to be there, to claim what is yours, to be happy. It is the finest place in the world."
And it is a fine place to visit.