WHAT makes a "flat-out good read"? That's what Kirkus Reviews, a pre-publication journal, called Donald Harington's new novel "The Choiring of the Trees." This particular "flat-out good read" combines story and postmodern riffs without ever compromising the singing quality of the prose.
In alternating chapters curiously labeled "On" and "Off," we meet a romantic Danielle Steel-type heroine (we say hero now) named Viridis Monday. Monday is based, we read in a front note, on a "courageous Arkansas woman" who actually "sought to rescue an Ozarks mountaineer condemned to the electric chair" in 1914. We meet this mountaineer, named Nail Chism. At moments of lucid detachment (for instance, just before the switch is pulled on the chair), Chism hears trees singing.
In addition to singing trees, this "flat-out good read" has some paintings and some written texts that influence the plot more than do the manifest power in the strong right hand of the mountaineer or the knock-out combination of the lady's red hair, blue eyes, and white skin.
Most "flat-out good reads" are streamlined and work toward their necessary conclusions by reducing complexity and ambiguity. Anything that would break the mesmeric pull is thrown out in rewriting. Harington, who has written several books about life in the Ozarks, has other goals in mind. His heart-stopping story is also mind-expanding.
Viridis Monday tries to save Nail Chism, but everything this beautiful daughter of a Little Rock banker does is in vain. Likewise, Nail's long-meditated act of revenge on his sadistic wardens backfires. In the end, Nail's heroic struggle is finally with no man but with the Arkansas river, which sounds like Norse mythology, or Greek myth. Before he gets home to Viridis, he's tempted by a Bible-reading Circe.
In "The Choiring of the Trees" the conventional action plot transcends itself in ways that could frustrate the reader who reads in the fast lane. In the end it all serves the greater purposes of myth. It's as myth that the form of this novel finally comes clear.
"Myth" may be misleading, but is "postmodern tall tale" any better? Anyway, "The Choiring of the Trees" owes its success not to the conventions of the "flat-out good read" but to something bigger. To understand this novel, to "place it" critically, I had to turn to art historical criticism. In "The True Vine" by Stephen Bann I found what I needed: a description of the "creative heterogeneity of the Western tradition."
Bann's book has a literary quality all its own. He is a subtle and powerful practitioner of ekphrasis, or the art of describing works of art. Essentially a historian, he participates - and allows us to - in the great joy that somehow accompanies even the most problematic or melancholy art. Bann links examples drawn from all periods of visual art, from Cy Twombly back to Cezanne, back farther to Poussin, then to Piero della Francesca, then to the Greek painter Zeuxis and Persian art. He shows how complex meanings are drawn from the viewer's mostly unconscious reservoir of content.
For Bann, Cezanne is a hero because toward the end of his long career he asks: "I am working doggedly, I can glimpse the Promised Land. Shall I be like the great chief of the Hebrews or shall I manage to enter it?"
Cezanne's achievement, Bann says, was not to have laid down the law about form but to open the possibility of sacred meaning in modern, "secular" art. Reading Bann, we begin to see that the psychological phrase "the beholder's share" also has a Biblical accent: "Behold!"
Like one of Bann's paintings, "The Choiring of the Trees" is both inseparable from history and transcends what we call history. It is, it's true, an expos 142&gt; of rotten conditions in the Arkansas penitentiary, then called The Walls, in the early part of this century. It's a complex portrait of the ethics of government: The portrait of George Washington Hays, the governor of Arkansas between 1913-17, has the ring of truth.
It's also a smashing love story. There's Viridis Monday, a fine example of independent womanhood. She's painted in full: her Little Rock upbringing - her alcoholic mother shifted domestic burdens onto her unformed shoulders and her father shifted his sexual needs onto her uncomprehending youth - is portrayed as in a genre painting. Her early trip to Paris brings her into contact with Gertrude Stein, whom she admires, and Pablo Picasso and his groupies (one of whom tries to seduce her in a very funny sce ne in which she keeps the upper hand).
As for Nail: life in Nail's mountains, local politics in his village of Stay More, country food, speech (Harington has a great ear) and manners, his family's corn whiskey operation (bootlegging and his refusal to participate get the plot going and implicate politicians who later try to destroy him), the beauty and work of Nail's pastoral life (he's best described as a serious shepherd): All this is told in the novel vividly as history. In the process, Nail becomes as hard as his name implies - which is another way words and things interpenetrate in this story.
But as in art, so in fiction: History is not enough. Nail cannot save himself, nor can Viridis save him. But they both hear the choiring of the trees, the trees of life and truth. Both Nail and Viridis are ingenuous, handsome, and prone to impulsive response to what they perceive as injustice. They have much to learn. If in the end, love conquers all, there's much to conquer.
"The Choiring of the Trees" combines the postmodern refinement and smartness of A. S. Byatt's "Possessed" and the old, Southern, combustible, transcendental realism of Flannery O'Connor. Like the painters in Bann's book, it can represent gold with what is mere yellow pigment - or Arkansas local history for that matter. Toward the end of this superbly readable novel, we're reminded how closely entwined are the Biblical and classical traditions in the Ozarks.
In 1895, a town was named after a historical romance by General Lewis Wallace, "Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ."
Ben Hur was a Roman-educated Jew who converted to Christianity and did good deeds. Nail Chism is a shepherd who, in his innate goodness, his sympathy for suffering mankind, his openness to saving influences, his peacefulness, his intolerance of injustice, even his rebirth in a cave, reminds one of the good shepherd who turned Ben Hur into a hero, and all through the power of the Word.
"Behold!" then: this "flat-out good read" is a superbly rewarding novel that questions its own form and triumphs, filling the patient reader with gratitude, for he too can hear the choiring of the trees.