Five Glimpses of Donald Harington
By Kevin Brockmeier
I spent considerably more time in the company of Donald Harington’s novels than I did in the company of Donald Harington. I’ve been doing the math. Between our introduction in 2003 and his death in 2009, we can’t have passed more than half a dozen hours together—this despite the fact that we lived and wrote in the same relatively small state. Six hours! Reading The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks alone took me longer than that. Yet it’s not only because of the bounties of his fiction that Donald Harington remains important to me, and it’s not only as a reader that I miss him. My question is this: Can you love somebody without actually knowing him? I’m not talking about page-knowledge, the kind that readers attain of writers along the one-way street of their books, though I would certainly claim a spot for such knowledge in my life, and even at the center of it, and nothing will ever convince me that the suggestions a book makes about its author, no matter how fragmentary or handpicked, or how dimmed or displaced beneath layers of fiction, are entirely illusory. I’m talking, instead, about the kind of knowledge that slowly accrues through conversation, shared experience, and mutual attention. The fact is that my conversations with Donald Harington were often strained. He was deaf as a result of the meningitis he had contracted at the age of twelve, and sitting at a table or mingling at a reception, chatted most gracefully by trading notecards. He was skilled at reading lips, but I was, I’m afraid, poor at having my lips read. I would turn self-conscious about the shapes I could feel my mouth making and become halting, as though I were speaking for the official record. My shared experiences with him amounted to a brief introduction at a book signing (mine), an equally brief hello at a second book signing (his), a testimonial at an award ceremony (my testimonial, for his award), and a dinner at the Arkansas Literary Festival, followed the next day by a reading (both of ours, along with Jack Butler’s). Ten minutes, ten minutes, ninety minutes, two hours, two hours—for a total of five hours and fifty minutes. That’s not much time for mutual attention to do its work, and even less considering the formality or abruptness of most of these occasions. Yet though I’m not sure I truly knew Donald Harington, I do feel that I loved him, and I’d like to examine why.
I’ve written frequently enough about the Stay More novels, in the pages of this magazine and elsewhere, that my praise for them has become encased in a kind of verbal cement. I say the same things over and over again. I’d like for once not to do so. Allow me this, though: Following Donald Harington’s death, Vic Snyder, then Arkansas’s representative from the Second Congressional District, introduced a resolution to the floor of the U.S. House honoring his life and accomplishments (H.Res. 1040, agreed to on March 20, 2010). This resolution contained a passage from a tribute I wrote in 2006 when he won the Oxford American’s Lifetime Award for Contributions to Southern Literature, and I’d like to duplicate it here. I believe it marks the only time I’ve ever been whereased: “Whereas writer Kevin Brockmeier expressed that ‘the signal feature of Donald Harington’s novels is their tremendous liveliness. His books are not blind to suffering, featuring as they do murder, poverty, kidnapping, loss, and betrayal. Yet the mood of his stories is overwhelmingly one of celebration. He extends his sympathies so widely that even the trees and the hills, the insects and the animals, the criminals and the ghosts seem to sing with the joy of existence. He brings a tenderness and a brio to the page that prevents his characters from sinking beneath the weight of their troubles, and one finishes his books above all else with an impression of a robust, loving comic energy. You feel as if you have been immersed in life, both your own life and the particular lives of his characters, and that life, for all its misfortunes, is a pretty good place to be.’” Very briefly, I’ll add that though The Cherry Pit, his first novel, was the runner-up for the PEN-Faulkner Award in 1965, and therefore, as far as I can tell, the only book he wrote to have received public consideration for a major national literary award, it’s the least sure-footed of his novels. He found his stride soon thereafter, though, in 1970, with Lightning Bug, the second of his fourteen novels. (Make that fifteen if you consider his travelogue slash memoir slash cultural history Let Us Build Us a City a novel, as he did.) Lightning Bug’s opening page marks the moment he adopted the fictional community of Stay More as his homeland—the place to which his novels almost always return and, even when they don’t, to which they can’t help but bend their gaze—and also the moment at which he liberated himself from the sweatshop line of the standard novel and truly began to sound like himself: a writer commanding a voice rather than a writer testing one out. Of all the books that followed, my own favorite is The Cockroaches of Stay More, a grass-level version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but since most readers prefer novels about human beings disguised as human beings to novels about human beings disguised as cockroaches, the one I always recommend to novitiates is The Choiring of the Trees, about an Ozarks mountaineer sentenced to the electric chair and the newspaper artist determined to see him set free, which might be the most affecting of all his novels, if not the most daring or unexpected, and which burns slowly toward an immensely satisfying resolution. Imagine now, if you have not yet read his work, that I am pressing it into your hands. Unless you love bugs.
In July of 1991, shortly after I graduated from high school, I set a day aside to drive three hours to a theme park, buy a plush Shmoo the size of a meat freezer, and drive three hours back home. The theme park in question, Dogpatch USA, can’t have occupied the national consciousness very firmly, and may by now have slipped from it entirely, so I should tell you that, from 1968 to 1993, it stretched across eight hundred twenty-five acres in the Arkansas Ozarks, boasting rides, shops, trains, ponds, shooting galleries, puppet theaters, and restaurants, all inspired by Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comics and patterned in their trademark moonshine-and-overalls, apostrophe-riddled, ramshackle cartoon hillbilly motif. I made the drive for one sole purpose, and that was to buy the largest Shmoo I could find, a gift for a girl with whom I was in the most foolishly unspoken sort of love (better foolishly unspoken, I thought at the time, than foolishly spoken) and with whom I had a longstanding mock dispute regarding Shmoos and what I guess I will call their vibrissae, those long black bristles that divided their faces, and whether they should be considered whiskers or mustaches—which is to say, I suppose, whether Shmoos were animals or people. I spent no more than fifteen minutes in the park, exactly as long as it took me to find the gift shop, unbalance the Shmoo from its surprisingly high shelf, and return to my car with it. Dogpatch USA was roughly one hundred sixty miles from Little Rock, and roughly sixty miles from Drakes Creek—the former, the city I was preparing to leave for college; the latter, the small hill town where Donald Harington used to spend his summers, and upon which he eventually modeled Stay More. At eighteen I did not yet know his books. I am convinced there is a connection to be made between Dogpatch and Stay More, between the bright-colored yokelvision of that now-abandoned theme park and the ornate fictional world where hundreds of such backwoods characters erupted into their full humanity, glowing bright with all their shocks, mistakes, passions, delights, tragedies, frailties, and humiliations. I had not yet done the reading, though, to draw that association. In my boxy little car, I was speeding through the landscape Donald Harington missed and treasured so much that he spent an entire writing life attempting to return there. The girl I loved was back in Little Rock, absorbed in the mysteries of her day. The hills undulated past me like waves. The Shmoo barely fit in my backseat. My thesis is that everyone has a Stay More. That time and that place is mine.
Donald Harington once said that his philosophy of art—I’m very slightly paraphrasing here—was that it is an escape from the world that makes the world itself, when you return to it, more magical, bearable, or understandable. No one has ever devised a perfect aesthetic metric, but this one, it seems to me, is more than usually revealing. Taking as my examples a few of the writers I admire, I would say, for instance, that Walter Tevis makes me feel the world is more understandable; Italo Calvino, more magical; William Maxwell, more bearable. Karen Russell: more magical. Chris Fuhrman: more bearable. Octavia Butler: more understandable. Thomas Glave: more bearable because more understandable. Marilynne Robinson: more magical because more understandable. Peter S. Beagle: more bearable because more magical. Bohumil Hrabal: more magical because more bearable. J. G. Ballard: more understandable (but certainly not more bearable). Éric Chevillard: more magical (but certainly not more understandable). Dino Buzzati: more understandable. Russell Hoban: more bearable. Sarah Manguso: more understandable. Daniel Pinkwater: more magical. Peter Orner: more bearable. Leo Tolstoy: more understandable. Alejandro Zambra: for complicated reasons, more magical. Adam Ehrlich Sachs: for complicated reasons, more bearable. I’ll stop. Tasks like this make me feel like a vampire counting grains of spilled rice. I could go on for whole libraries. Whether Donald Harington was similarly obsessive, I do not know. And into which categories he would have distributed his own favorite writers, I do not know either. Once, asked to list the ten greatest novels of all time, he selected titles by Vladimir Nabokov, James Agee, William Styron, John Kennedy Toole, Robert Penn Warren, John Barth, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . and Donald Harington (Some Other Place. The Right Place., if you wonder which of his books he himself might have pressed into your hands). Of these ten names, his excepted, we compared notes on only three: Nabokov (whom he presumed I had read more completely than I had), García Márquez (his touchstone was Love in the Time of Cholera, while mine was One Hundred Years of Solitude), and Agee (whose A Death in the Family was our mutual pick for the Great Southern Novel crown). I recall discussing each of these writers with him in 2003, when he interviewed me, by email, for the state paper. My first novel had just been released. At that moment, and for a long time after, I was falling apart—a victim of who knows what, but I wasn’t sleeping and my health was betraying me in ways I was young and naive enough never to have foreseen as a possibility. In my head I kept reiterating the Leonard Cohen lyric, “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” The cracks were apparent to me, but not the light. Donald Harington seemed to intuit this. For the next six years, until he fell ill, he would write me whenever he read something he thought I might appreciate, enjoyed a story I had published, or spotted a review of my work, but really just to remind me that he was out there, writing just like I was, and alive, and that I wasn’t the only person who knew what it was like to feel good for no reason one day and bad for no reason the next. Through his kindness and attention, he made those years, with all their cracks, more bearable for me, more understandable.
In 1984, in a radio interview that meandered into a discussion of how most writers, including Shakespeare, must be situated within their historical circumstances in order for readers to “forgive or endure” certain elements of their work, Jorge Luis Borges said of Franz Kafka that he had become “the great classic writer of our tormented century. He will possibly be read in the future too, and it will be forgotten that he wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century, that he was a contemporary of the Expressionists and the First World War. All that will be forgotten. His work can become anonymous, and perhaps in time deserves to be so. It’s the most that a work can aim for, isn’t it? Few books attain that status. . . . In Kafka’s case, it’s possible that his fables are now part of human memory. What happened to Quixote could happen to them. Let’s say that all the copies of Quixote, in Spanish and in translation, were lost. The figure of Don Quixote would remain in human memory.” I’ve been thinking about anonymity and renown and the way recognition sometimes escapes and sometimes gathers itself around the writers I admire. The work of Donald Harington, I believe, deserves to last, to remain in human memory, but it’s too idiosyncratic, too personal, to ever become anonymous. His characters are as vivid as those of anyone writing today—yet they are distinctly the creation of a strange, singular, dexterous, involuting mind, one that fits everything to its own nature. His prose is enthrallingly musical—yet it’s the music of one man accommodating himself to the rhythms, sonics, and undertones of the language, rather than the music of the times, or of the culture as a whole. Only Stay More itself, the setting for so many of his novels, seems available to myth, to anonymity: that lushly populated, densely historied, vividly geographied Ozark hamlet that permeates his books so richly, and your own mind so richly as you read them, that if only, you fancy, you could follow the right sequence of roads, or dial the clock around to the right set of hours, you might actually find your way there. Are there works of literature that fix themselves permanently in the world’s imagination solely because the places they invent seem so real? Perhaps. I think of Middle Earth, and also of Macondo, though those places seem supplementary to the air of magic their authors establish, and also, at least in the first case, to the chiaroscuro of good and evil. I suspect, though, that if Donald Harington’s books are indeed to last, they will have to do so in the way of Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Laurence Sterne, Michel de Montaigne; Aristophanes but not Sophocles; Vonnegut but not Orwell; Beckett the novelist but not Beckett the playwright: the great individualists, whose human presence directly informs their writing, and from which that writing is ultimately inseparable.
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