A Slice of Historical Realism
A century ago, the Kansas-born and Vermont-based writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher spoke of the importance of place, as well as of time, in the formation of a culture and in the shaping of individuals within a culture:
Some wise man has said that the date of a man’s life depends not on the calendar, but on the geographical position of his home.… In my own case, living on a side road on the flank of a mountain in Vermont, it goes without saying that I am living about fifty years ago. We do things for ourselves. That is the mark of a bygone generation.
These lines come to mind when reading Chilton Williamson’s new novel which gets its cultural bearings, its contextual coordinates, from both the calendar and the geographical position of its setting. Both are crucial. We miss one or the other at our peril.
In calendar terms, the novel is set in the early 1990s, a time that is further away from us than we care to realize. Although many of us remember the early 1990s, we forget how long ago it was, not in terms of years, a quarter of a century being a mere stitch in time, but in terms of the seismic shift in cultural norms that the advent of the internet has heralded. In those days, long gone and well and truly buried by technological “progress”, people had time alone and were far less lonely; now they are never alone and are lonelier than ever. In those days, people were smarter than their phones and could move freely in the space that the absence of omnipresent technology provided; nowadays most of us are hooked online, addicted to distraction, and are hanging like flies on the web that technology has woven. This is one of the reasons that we feel a sense of liberation when we enter the pages of this novel. The people within it, like the people we once were, can move freely in real time and space, unimpaired by the imposition of virtual reality. It is for this reason that we can move such a short way in terms of time and yet be so far removed from where we are, one short step in the life of a man having coincided with one giant and abysmal leap for mankind.
In geographical terms the novel is set in Wyoming, a place in which space is itself larger because there’s more of it. Thus, on entering the novel’s pages, we are aware of being in a big place where people are still relatively small, a place in which even technology cannot do much to weaken the power of the primal elements of ice and snow, and wind and chill.
One of the strengths of Mr. Williamson’s writing is the manner in which he evokes and even invokes the power of the elements as a means of reminding us that we are in a real place in which real people grapple with reality. The characters come alive because they are not living artificial lives, cosseted by the inanities and trivialities of urban life. And what a spectrum of characters he offers us, a veritable human menagerie of waifs, strays and wanderers.
There is Father Hillary, the exiled intellectual, transplanted from the ivory towers of the Sorbonne and Princeton to a small mining town in western Wyoming, a fish out of water, trying to squeeze himself like the proverbial square peg in a round hole into his role as pastor to an alien people in an alien world. And yet Williamson reminds us that the priest is closer to the God he worships in the wild west than ever he had been in the hallowed and yet hollow halls of academe. “Above the nearly lightless town the stars shone with a brilliant intensity they had lacked in Princeton, New Jersey, and in France, where they had been obscured by a mixture of smoke and fog that reflected the industrial light below them.” This new world might seem strange and alien to the uprooted priest but it is more real than he realizes.
Then we have Richardson, the rugged outdoorsman, whom we first meet high in the frozen peaks, as much a part of the Wyoming landscape as the priest is apart from it, a lapsed Catholic seeking a freedom that is elusive because it is illusory:
Personally he had nothing against the Church, and he hoped that She had nothing against him. Still he found Mass depressing, an unwanted reminder of the unfreedom of childhood and of the still greater unfreedom of mortality. All his life the Church had loomed before him, large as Everest. It wasn’t that he hoped it would somehow vanish like a cloud, simply that he preferred not to think about it at all.
In contrast to Richardson’s avoidance of the memento mori, there is the irrepressible Mary Lacey Fitzpatrick, paralyzed after a riding accident twenty years earlier, whose lack of physical freedom is no match for her free-spirited joie de vivre, exhibited in a no-nonsense enthusiasm for life which is a tonic to the reader and a challenge to those characters, the sad and sullen majority, who feel no gratitude for the gift of life or the gifts that they are given with which to live it. In this camp are the Walker family, blinded by a stubborn pride and the prejudice it engenders. The manner in which “Old Man” Walker reacts to the debilitating effects of a stroke is truly pathetic, in the fullest sense of the word; his prideful refusal of pity making him all the more pitiful.
On the fringes of the story and yet somehow tugging at its heart is Pablo, an immigrant from the Basque country, who has found himself in the wide-open wastes of Wyoming, watching sheep in the wilderness, because the Iberian Peninsula and indeed the whole of Europe is too small for him. Like the cowboy of the fabled frontier, he is seeking a freedom without fences, a life untrammeled by modernity, in which he can live at one with the landscape in Neolithic simplicity. For Pablo, the Old World has been ruined by the new world of industrialism, whereas the New World provides a sanctuary for those exiled souls, such as himself, who are seeking Old World remnants in the New World’s vastness. Arising from this paradox is one of the novel’s most delightfully edgy ironies, in which Pablo, this real-life “noble savage”, finds himself at loggerheads with the new age environmentalists, the clash between the two weltanschauungs representing the perennial struggle between the realism of the practitioner and the romantic utopianism of the theorist.
This is but a sampling of the characters who populate Mr. Williamson’s world, or the world he presents to us. Their lives interweave and intersect, as they inevitably must in a small town, especially in the days before real-life social networking was destroyed by social media. Mr. Williamson’s genius is evident in the way in which the story is told without preachiness and yet with an evident though subliminal morality. Lessons are learned by the characters, and therefore by the readers, without the author ever being seen to teach them. This is the mark of a great writer and a great storyteller.
As for Mr. Williamson’s modus operandi, if one can use such a crass term for such a delicately finessed craftsmanship, it is to make the presence of Wyoming felt with a Coleridgean love for landscape and the light with which it is painted, coupled with a gutsy engagement with the deadly chill of the climate and the deadly chill of the people who endure it by embracing it. Further up and further in, as C. S. Lewis might say, there is the suggestion of something else and something deeper. It is encapsulated by the opening stanza of Dante’s Paradiso which Mr. Williamson selects as the epigraphical curtain-raiser to his work:
La gloria di colui che tutto move
per l’universo penetra e risplende
in una parte più e meno altrove.
At its deepest, this splendid fictional tour de force shines forth the glory of Him who impenetrates the universe and moves all things, shining forth his flaming splendour. It does so with the subtlety and dexterity of an Evelyn Waugh or a Flannery O’Connor. It is, in short, a slice of historical realism which does not shirk from the grim reality of sin but, at the same time, does not shy away from the presence of grace in the midst of the darkness. It is fiction that reflects the natural and the supernatural facts of life, enlightening the former with the invisible but palpable presence of the latter. It is the realism of the Real Presence of the Divine in the comedy of errors which we call real life.
This article was first published in the Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.