The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

I often come across books that are marketed as remarkable achievements for their young authors – Chris Paolini’s Eragon, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – but such books always leave me thinking, “Pretty good for someone that age,” instead of just “Pretty good.” I’ve now found an exception.

Carson McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 22 years old, and there is no trace whatsoever of immaturity or short life experience anywhere in this book. It is filled with a deep sensibility of isolation and alienation, of spiritual voids and societal oppression. It seems to me that given her understanding and empathy for all of the characters around whom the novel revolves, McCullers would have to have been black and white, exalted and condemned, religious and irreligious, hopeful and hopeless, a witness to tragedy, a widow and a widower, a member of the underclass, a holder of a Ph.D. in literature, a mother, a father, and a drunk. Few authors ever show this level of understanding of the human condition; McCullers did it at an age when many authors are busy writing their theses.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter dissects the lives of five people in a small Southern town that is forever teetering on the precipice of financial ruin: Mick Kelly, a world-weary twelve-year-old girl whose family is squeaking by; Jake Blount, an angry, alcoholic drifter; Biff Brannon, the town’s bartender, who becomes a widower early in the book; and Dr. Copeland, an educated black man whose atheist/Marxist views and uncontrollable temper have alienated him from his own children. The fifth man, John Singer, is a deaf-mute whose life partner (it’s not made explicit whether the two are homosexual, but that detail is irrelevant – their relationship is that of a married couple) loses his marbles and is committed to an asylum. Singer becomes the somewhat-willing audience for the private thoughts of the other four characters, often responding with nothing more than nods and smiles, occasionally writing down a more detailed answer, and sometimes saying nothing at all. Is he a priest receiving confessions? A God or Jesus figure? Or the personification of an uncaring world? McCullers gives hints but no firm answers to these questions or to the question of what the other characters symbolize, leaving just enough room for the reader’s imagination and for a host of differing interpretations of her work throughout the ensuing years.

McCullers also had an unusual gift for prose and sits as a sort of bridge between the lyrical but difficult style of Faulkner and the plain but still sparkling text of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Her words are seldom superfluous, yet her descriptions are evocative, especially when discussing the thoughts or feelings of characters, as when one of the five characters above gains some measure of emotional advancement towards the novel’s close:

For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror… he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.

I could see a criticism of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter‘s plot as thin. Very little happens in the book to move things forward, and there’s nothing to resolve at the end; the book’s climax is a little out of nowhere, with one event setting off a trigger of smaller events, petering out towards the story’s conclusion. However, the lack of narrative greed doesn’t stop the book from flowing because McCullers’ prose is so strong and her characters so well-developed. It’s a remarkable achievement for an author of any age.

If you’ve already read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Richard Wright wrote an excellent review in New Republicwhen it was published, but if you haven’t read the book, bear in mind that his review contains significant spoilers.

Hall of Fame.

This ballot counts for nothing except the Hall of Fame in my head. I’d vote for:

Tim Raines
Bert Blyleven
Rich Gossage
Alan Trammell
Mark McGwire

That’s it. Post your hypothetical ballots – remember, yours count as much as mine does! – in the comments.

I weep for our language (part 2)…

This one’s interesting, from a Newsday review of The Kite Runner film:

“The Kite Runner” is the latest in a spate of smash bestsellers that have been transferred to the screen with a cautiousness usually reserved for the conveyance of holy relics and eggs. It’s generation-spanning plot combines one of the season’s favorite themes (the guileful acts of children) with one of its trendiest (turmoil in Afghanistan). And it premieres on the heels of nettlesome publicity involving stage-parent outrage and threats of bodily harm targeted at its youngest stars. … Like it’s author, “The Kite Runner’s” morose protagonist is the son of a Kabul diplomat who relocates to California as the Russians begin their incursions into Afghanistan.

I deleted one paragraph in the middle, but in the span of five sentences, Jan Stuart manages to use the correct “its” twice and the incorrect one twice, even though every instance called for the same word (“its” without its apostrophe). This has to be one of the easiest grammatical rules to remember, and I see it screwed up all the freaking time. All Stuart had to do was remember Strong Bad’s helpful song:

If you want it to be possessive, it’s just “I-T-S.” But, if it’s supposed to be a contraction then it’s “I-T-apostrophe-S,” … scalawag.

I weep for our language (part 1)…

From an Associated Press story on the death of Ike Turner:

But over the years they’re genre-defying sound would make them favorites on the rock ‘n’ roll scene, as they opened for acts like the Rolling Stones.

Who the hell wrote this? A third-grader?

Appointment in Samarra.

I’ve said many times that my favorite American-born author is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tender is the Night is still the best American novel I’ve ever read, and of course The Great Gatsby belongs near the top of any rankings of the most important novels ever written. Fitzgerald’s literary output was short – four completed novels and forty or fifty short stories – so when I find an author who counts Fitzgerald as a major influence, he gets an automatic five-point bonus. John O’Hara is one such writer.

Appointment in Samarra was his masterwork, a cutting FSFesque look at the destructive effects of alcohol and small-town society on one man and his marriage. It was controversial in its time for its harsh language (tame by our standards) and frank treatment of sexuality (same), and that seems to have led reviewers even to this day to denigrate its quality as a novel.

The book opens with an epigraph from W. Somerset Maugham, which provides the novel with its title and the reader with a clue as to how the plot ends:

DEATH SPEAKS:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the market place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go on to Samarra and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?” “That was not a threatening gesture,” I said, “it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

The novel tells the story of the self-destruction of Julian English, a happily married man who owns the Cadillac dealership in his small Pennsylvania town, but whose temper and tendency to drink to excess lead him into a three-day spiral where he destroys just about everything in his life. By limiting the scope to just 72 hours, O’Hara gives us a deeper level of detail into the lives of English and some of the book’s secondary characters, and his dialogue crackles, bringing life into mundane conversations, where every phrase seems to open the window into its speaker’s character just a few millimeters more.

Comparing O’Hara’s prose to Fitzgerald’s is unfair; the latter was a master of using beautiful phrases to describe even the most harrowing sequences, unparalleled in American fiction. O’Hara works with a greater economy of words, and his prose is often more jagged, in line with the plot but not up to Fitzgerald’s impossible standard. Appointment in Samarra would otherwise fit comfortably in Fitzgerald’s canon, right alongside the similar story in The Beautiful and Damned (another marriage on the rocks, but a much longer tale), with the same alcohol-drenched setting and unflinching look at how we treat each other and how we respond to our environments.

BBWAA redux.

I have closed comments on the prior thread and they’ll be closed on this one as well.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak to several people involved in the BBWAA’s decision. It appears to me now that there is (are?) a lot of politics involved in that group and I’m just not aware of all of the angles people are playing. I intended my last post to try to calm things down, and instead, I have clearly inflamed matters. At this point, I think it’s best for everyone if I close this part of the discussion.

I want to thank all those of you who’ve offered your support. As I said in the last post, I’m confident this is all going to work out at some point down the road. But I’m not comfortable with the turn the discussions have taken, to an “us vs. them” mentality. The comments I’ve been getting on the prior thread are getting slightly more nasty with each turn, and I don’t want that here. I’ve also been told by a few people that some supporters of Rob Neyer and myself are emailing BBWAA members with some strident and occasionally nasty comments. Please, please, don’t do this. It helps no one. And since I don’t like it when ESPN.com readers are nasty with me, I don’t want to encourage anyone to be nasty with anyone else.

Let’s hope the next time you hear from me on the subject, it’s a post with a photo of me holding a BBWAA membership card. Until then, I’m not saying anything more on the subject.

BBWAA.

I was not inclined to comment on this whole mess, but I think at this point it’s probably a good idea to set a few things straight.

First and foremost is that yes, I do attend MLB games on a regular basis. I couldn’t do my playoff advance reports without actually going to see the teams play live; on the season’s final Saturday, I hopped in the car and drove from Boston to Philly because I hadn’t seen the Phillies play and wanted to get at least two games with them before writing them up. I’m not even sure why this was in question, since I mention being at games all the time. (Seriously, did they think that I sat at home and pointed the radar gun at the television?) I watch games from the scouts’ section, not the press box, because the view is better, and I usually eat before going to the park, not in the press dining room, because the food is better.

Second, Bob Dutton, the president of the BBWAA, has said this:

Some board members informally contacted folks at ESPN with this question and were told neither Rob nor Keith regularly attend big-league games and do not need to do so in order to do their jobs.

To the best of my knowledge, this isn’t accurate. Jack O’Connell, the secretary of the BBWAA, has my full contact info (including cell phone #), and he has the contact info for the ESPN.com baseball editor, who submitted the list of nine names. Neither Jack nor anyone else on the seven-member committee contacted me or the baseball editor to ask if I attended big-league games regularly. We were also both in Nashville in the hotel at the time of the meeting, but again, we weren’t contacted. In fact, we can’t figure out who the board members “informally contacted” at ESPN, because there was no one else with the authority to speak about Rob and myself. I have expressed this concern to Bob, although I won’t reprint any of his private responses to me here.

There are various statements out there on blogs and in blog comments (by the way, thank you all for your support) saying that ESPN somehow told the BBWAA that I didn’t need to be a member. This is false.

Third, the rank-and-file were presented with a binary choice on the motion to admit these Internet writers: Yay, which admitted the 16 who got in and rejected Rob and myself; or nay, which would have admitted no one. There was a little floor debate, but the names could not be unbundled, and I was told by more than one member that they felt there was “no room for discussion.” Given that scenario, I would have voted “yay” as well. Better to get Gammons and Stark and Verducci and Passan and the others in than to get none in at all.

I only know two members of the committee: Dutton, whom I just met for the first time after the vote and who seems for all the world like a great guy; and Bob Elliott, whom I’ve known since 2002 and whom I respect as a person and a writer. I do sort of know Tracy Ringolsby, who isn’t about to nominate me for the Spink Award, but I’d like to give him the credit to think that his personal feelings about me didn’t affect his professional judgment here. I’m told he also voted against the general proposal to admit the 16 who did get in, so this is probably as much about the Interwebs as is it about me. I’ve only exchanged emails with O’Connell and with Phil Rogers (the latter exchange coming years ago), and have never had any interaction with Paul Hoynes or David O’Brien. I’m not sure if any of them would recognize me if they saw me at a ballpark or at the winter meetings or anywhere. Would it have helped if anyone on the committee besides Bob Elliott was more familiar with how I go about doing my job? Perhaps. (NOTE: Ringolsby disputes the accuracy of parts of the preceding paragraph. His objections are in the comments below.)

Either way, I’ve been encouraged by a steady stream of positive comments (support, sympathy, righteous indignation) from the BBWAA’s rank and file to reapply next year. It has now been brought to their attention that I do attend games regularly, and I’ll be going to more games next year anyway. Bob Dutton explained to me that this was the obstacle, and he was one of those encouraging me to reapply. So while I appreciate all of your support, the best course of action for all of us is to just wait until next year. Thanks.

Nashville eats.

So before I get to the food, let me talk about the hotel that Minor League Baseball likes to force down the throats of the major league clubs (you know, the ones who make minor league owners’ insane profits possible) and the media covering the event, the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. You’re probably familiar with Hell’s Kitchen; this place is Hell’s Outhouse. I’m a pretty hardcore capitalist, and even I’m offended by the existence of this hotel. It’s enormous, large enough to get its own ZIP Code, with more wasted space than a banana plantation in the Yukon, and it’s overflowing with fake plastic trees and fake waterfalls and other crap straight from the mind of a designer who was clearly very, very mad at society when he came up with the concept. It takes about fifteen minutes to make a full circuit around the hotel, and can easily take upwards of twenty minutes to go from the lobby to certain guest rooms. Every restaurant and shop in the hotel is outrageously overpriced – $2.75 for a 20-ounce bottle of Dasani – and non-guests are charged $16 to park with no in-and-out privileges. There’s no central lobby area for the winter meetings’ standard evening congregations, and the hotel itself is located a good fifteen to twenty minutes from downtown or any area with non-chain sit-down restaurants. I’m tempted to go for a career switch, train as a munitions expert, bribe a county official to condemn the building before the meetings return to this scar on America’s landscape and culture in 2012, and (with the government’s permission, of course) blow the damn place to oblivion. I have yet to find a front-office exec, scout, or writer who likes the place. But hey, outgoing Minor League President Mike Moore loves it, so it’s been there every four to five years for forever now, and we may be stuck with it even after the door hits Moore square in the ass on his way out. Thanks for nothing, Mike.

First meal had to be quick, so I stopped by Fat Mo’s, a small Nashville-area fast-food chain along the lines of In-n-Out and Five Guys. The burger was excellent by fast-food standards, a wide half-pound patty with plenty of salt and some black pepper in it; it was well-done, of course, and it would have been nice if my “no cheese” request had been followed. (It wasn’t a big deal – I just peeled off the one slice of yellow crap.) Their French fries are very good, although not up to the hand-cut standard of the other two chains, although again Fat Mo’s gets credit for understanding the culinary value of salt. A burger and fries plus a bottle of water came to just over $6.

Whitt’s Barbecue shows up on a number of “best barbecue in Nashville” lists I found online, and their Q was solid. It’s a bare-bones joint and the menu is sparse. I ordered the cornbread dinner with pork, which comes with one side and fried cornbread, a Nashville specialty that elsewhere seems to be called a “corn cake.” The pork had a mild smoke flavor and no hint of dryness, meaning that very little sauce was required. The beans were fair, perhaps a bit too sweet, and the corn cake had a good crumb and savory taste but wasn’t very hot, so it had started to dry out.

Swett’s is a classic meat-and-three joint (which means you pick one meat item and three sides) in southwest Nashville that’s been open since 1953. Service is counter-based – you stand in line, get your order, pay at the end, etc. There’s a full list of items sitting on the top of the counter before you get to the food. They offer five standard meat items plus a couple of items from a list of five non-daily meat items, including pigs feet (not available the day I was there, darn it). I ordered the turkey and dressing, one of the non-daily meat items, as well as just two sides – pinto beans and okra – and baked corn bread (a muffin), as well as blackberry cobbler for dessert. The turkey and dressing was over-the-top good; I’m a sucker for cornbread dressing, and theirs was moist with a great mix of cornbread, onion, celery, and herb flavors, while the turkey was moist and the gravy was smooth with a good but not overpowering chicken-stock flavor. The pinto beans were classic southern-style with chunks of ham hock, while the okra was steamed (I was hoping for fried and didn’t see the okra before ordering it) and had little flavor. The cornbread was too sweet but had a good crumb; the cobbler was probably made from frozen blackberries and the cobbler dough was greasy, although neither fact stopped me from eating almost the entire thing.

The Yellow Porch is a sort of casual fine-dining restaurant on the southern end of town, with a strong emphasis on fresh ingredients, local ones if possible. The menu isn’t long but the dishes are layered – Calvin Trillin’s “something served on a bed of something else” expression comes to mind – and despite the obvious quality of the inputs, my meal didn’t add up. A perfect example of their too-clever-by-half philosophy is the oil served with the bread (which was, by the way, an outstanding soft sponge bread): Olive oil with chopped fresh herbs, with a pool of balsamic vinegar (might have been a reduction, but it wasn’t sweet) in the middle, with a small pile of fresh feta cheese in the middle of that. It was a taste overload, and the tart-with-tart combo didn’t work that well for me.

For the entrée, I went with grilled shrimp with “grits custard,” sautéed spinach, roasted red pepper coulis, and a “caraway spiced napa cabbage salad.” That last part, the cabbage salad, proved the undoing of the entire dish. The shrimp were outstanding, fresh, Cajun-spiced (but not blackened as the menu said), and the coulis was delicious. But in the center of the dish was a ring-molded grits custard, which was grits mixed with beaten eggs and what I think was parmesan cheese (not the real stuff) and baked. The texture was a bit odd, not firm like custard or smooth like grits/polenta. But the killer was the cabbage, which was shredded and drenched in white vinegar, which dripped down into the grits below it, rendering both items inedible. (Vinegar and parmesan cheese ≠ good eats.) To the restaurant’s credit, when I told the server that I was “disappointed” and explained about the excess vinegar, he took the entrée off the check.

For dessert, I had a slice of flourless chocolate-espresso torte with a raspberry coulis. The coulis was excellent and the texture of the torte was great, but it could have been darker. They get big points for having a wide selection of loose-leaf teas.

The next day’s lunch was at another meat-and-three with my comrade-in-fork, Joe Sheehan, who is also a frequent comrade-in-pork. Arnold’s Country Kitchen seems to be the consensus pick for Nashville’s best meat-and-three, and once we saw a diner with the pork barbecue on his plate, our lunchtime destinies were sealed. I paired mine with black-eyed peas and green beans. (Note: If the menu was posted somewhere, we didn’t see it, but there’s an image of it on their website.) The pork is a Wednesday special, and we picked the right day to go, because it was amazing, moist with a good smoky flavor, and the sauce had a nice molasses base without overpowering the flavor of the meat. The black-eyed peas sucked; there was no hint of ham hock or salt pork or, frankly, any flavor other than onions. The green beans were a little bit overstewed but otherwise solid. Arnold’s serves both baked cornbread and fried cornbread with every meal, and these were probably the best I’ve ever had, with no sweetness, plenty of fat in the recipe to keep them moist, and an absolutely perfect crumb. For dessert, I tried their “chocolate pie,” a thick chocolate pudding that tastes a lot like brownie batter topped with meringue. The filling was delicious and the meringue helped cut the richness of the filling, although the crust was too greasy and not very tender.

Last stop – with Sheehan, Kevin Goldstein, and Will Carroll in tow – was Calhoun’s, a Tennessee-wide chain of barbecue restaurants. They’re known or claim to be known for their ribs, so I went with the half slab with smashed red-skin potatoes and beans on the side. The hickory-smoked ribs were smoky but didn’t have a lot of hickory flavor; the best part was the top and end bits, with that indescribable pork taste and just the right amount of tooth. The mashed potatoes were good but generic – definitely made in a huge batch – and the beans were more like a chili than baked beans, which made a fan of Joe but was a little less of a hit with me. Pre-meal cornbread was on the sweet side, although the buttermilk biscuit was solid-average. They do get points for having Newcastle Brown Ale, which was about the last beer I expected to find in Nashville.

Figure skating (The Shoot Me Now Chronicles, Vol. 1).

So I was at my in-laws this Sunday and was roped into spending the late afternoon in the living room in front of the TV with the family. No football, although my father-in-law is a fan; there were three figure skating events on their DVR, and someone made the decision to hold a marathon viewing of all three, by which point I was already duct-taped to the sofa and couldn’t escape. As a result, I’m going to try to explain this bizarre series of competitions called the ISU Grand Prix, second only to the BCS in needless complexity.

The Grand Prix comprises six events, one held each weekend for six weeks, to qualify skaters for a seventh event, the Grand Prix final, which moves every year. The six qualifying events are held in the U.S. (“Skate America”), Russia (“Cup of Russia”), China (“Cup of China” – aren’t we so fucking clever), France (named after some French guy), Japan (“NHK Trophy”), and Canada (I forget). There was a German competition until 2003 when the ISU realized that the Germans sucked at figure skating. The Germans should stick to things they’re good at, like killing bloggers. (Or beer. They’d probably rather be known for beer.) Anyway, that’s when the Cup of China started up, although judging by all the empty seats, I’m going to say that figure skating has not quite grabbed the interest of the Chinese public yet.

As an aside, the Grand Prix events are by and large held in really cool places to visit. This year’s qualifying events were held in Moscow, Paris, Harbin, Tokyo, Québec city, and … Reading, Pennsyvlania. Really? That’s the best that we could offer? What, Camden was booked? My wife said Reading was better than Detroit … I’m not sure I have a witty comeback for that. She makes a good point.

So each skater or pair of skaters enters two of the six events, and after all six are held, the ISU looks at the combined points totals (not the actual scores) of all skaters (or pairs) and chooses the top six in each category – men’s, women’s, pairs, and “ice dancing” – not making this up, people – to go to the finals. The winner at each competition gets 15 points. As far as I can tell, the runner-up gets 13, the bronze medalist gets 11, but then at some point the points stop dropping by two for each spot and drop by one. It doesn’t matter if your score led the competition by 0.01 points or by 30 – you get two more Grand-Prix points than the runner-up. No one actually explained this in any of the telecasts, and you can’t tell at any point who’s leading or who has already qualified; if you’ve got 28 points already, you’re in the finals, but I never saw any standings or heard any indication of who had how many points. Then there’s the actual scoring of skating, which is never explained and seems to me to be purposefully obtuse so that casual fans can’t obviously spot official corruption, as they did in the last Winter Olympics (prompting a big overhaul of the scoring system). There’s no such things as a perfect score. The announcers obsess over who got a “personal best,” except that there are no awards for getting a “personal best,” only for getting the best score in the damn competition.

The worst part is that a skater (or pair) who skates in two separate competitions in this series uses the same routine both times. This makes for dreadful television. We were also treated to lengthy explanations of the “meaning” – again, not making this up – of various skaters’ and dancers’ routines. When the (very attractive) Tanith Belbin and her partner started up one of their ice dances, the female announcer started to explain that the routine is about “love and…” which is where I fell asleep, and when I woke up an hour later, she was still explaining what the routine was about. Really? It’s about love? I thought ice dancing was about skating in circles and waving your arms like you’re playing charades and the word is “seagull.” But I could be wrong.

I did learn a few things about what’s important in figure skating and ice dancing:

• It’s important that your skating is “sincere.”
• It’s important to “believe” in your abilities.
• And it’s really important to not fall on your ass. Or, if all of your competitors fall on their asses, just to fall on your ass less often than they do.

Another major problem, at least in terms of getting men to watch skating without having someone prop my eyelids open and tie me to the couch, is the fact that the best female skaters in the world are all either teenagers or just look like them. The top American skaters were Kimmie Meissner, who is about 16 and looks 14; and Caroline Zhang, who is 14, looks about 10, and sounds like she’s 8. Even Sasha Cohen, now in her early 20s (and not in any of these events), still has the figure of a preteen. This is not appealing.

Other than Belben, who is definitely good-looking, the hottest skater in any of the three events I was forced to endure was Finnish skater Kiira Korpi, who’s just 19 but has a great figure and is pretty in that sort of generic-Nordic-blonde way. (Nothing wrong with that.). Sadly, she’s not that good, finishing in 16th in the last Olympics and finishing well out of the money in the two Grand Prix events in which she skater. (To be fair, she suffered from a “stomach ailment” all summer, so she may not be on her game right now. Still looks hot, though.) But she identified, for me, the real reason for the lack of sex appeal at these events: There are no Swedes. Or, for that matter, no Danes, Norwegians, or even Icelandic skaters. If MLB is willing to pour money into China or Africa or South America to try to develop baseball there, shouldn’t the ISU be willing to pour money into the Nordic countries to try to develop some hot female skaters to give (straight) men a reason to watch this crap? The fact is that the countries currently producing skaters are not producing their fair share of attractive female skaters. This must be addressed.

Housekeeping.

Marilynne Robinson wrote exactly one novel during the period covered by the TIME 100, her 1980 book, Housekeeping, which made the list and won several awards for the best debut novel of its year. She wrote one novel shortly after the list’s publication, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, and to date, that’s her entire output of fiction. I suppose that she’s another datum in the argument that less is more.

Housekeeping is a scant story and most of its prose takes place in the narrator’s head; there’s as little dialogue as you’ll see in any book this side of Robinson Crusoe, and there’s very little action in the plot, which sort of jumps along like a tired frog with no particular destination in mind. But its prose itself is brilliant, often beautiful, and manages to be both rich and sparse at the same time, with powerful images used to convey strong emotions, notably those of loneliness, fear, and destiny:

Edith found her boxcar and composed herself in it, while the trainmen went about the jamming and conjoining of cold metal parts. In such weather one steps on fossils. The snow is too slight to conceal the ribs and welts, the hollows and sockets of the earth, fixed in its last extreme. But in the mountains, the earth is most unceremoniously buried, with all its relics, against its next rising, in hillock and tumulus.

The story itself revolves around two sisters, Ruth (the narrator) and Lucille, who are orphaned as young children and then live with their maternal grandmother, then two eccentric great-aunts, then finally their mother’s sister, Sylvie, a lifelong transient who engages in various small tasks (such as hoarding empty tin cans and magazines) because that, in her mind, is how one keeps house. The book is almost completely devoid of male characters; their grandfather dies in the book’s first few pages, their father is completely absent, and only one man speaks any words at all, and those only briefly in the story’s last three chapters to bring the plot to its climax.

Ruth and Lucille both react differently to life with Sylvie in the rural town of Fingerbone; Lucille eventually craves stability and seeks it out in conformity, while Ruth (apparently taking after her mother as well as her aunt) is complacent to live a quiet, solitary, sad life without the trappings of society that might serve to pin her in one place. Lucille shouts at the dinner table one night, “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to leave this place! … I think I’ll go to Boston,” and when asked why Boston, she replies, “Because it isn’t Fingerbone, that’s why!” (The passage seems like it might have inspired Augustana’s song about the city I call home.) Yet in the end, it’s Sylvie and Ruth who leave Fingerbone first, and Lucille stays behind to pursue her unknown destiny.

It’s odd to find a novel with this kind of depth and thematic complexity despite having just three major characters, little dialogue, two settings, and almost no action until the book’s final stages. It’s a remarkable feat of language and of thought, and perhaps even more remarkable that I, an avowed plot-first reader, enjoyed and even appreciated the work.