I’ve always had trouble with American literature. Maybe it’s because “ Moby Dick” casts a long shadow over my reading life (it’s a big book- and a big whale).. I’ve never read Carver, Gore Vidal or even Scott Fitzgerald. Although I have read- and enjoyed- Robert Ford.
I came across “ The Nearly Complete Works of Donald Harington” when it appeared as a cheapie on Kindle. Six novels for 99p- it sounded like a good deal.
It was a better deal than I could ever imagined. Donald Harington sets this novel sequence in an imaginary Arkansas village, miles from anywhere. Harington based it on Drake’s Creek, a hamlet he had stayed as a boy.He has a razor sharp memory for what it is to be very young.
“Lightning Bug” begins with Dawny, a little boy of five or six, sitting on the verandah of Latha Bourne’s house. He listens to the screen door squeak, the cats purring in the yard. Latha keeps one of the two village stores. She’s strong, lonely, uncertain- a wonderfully complex creation. She lives with her ( putative) niece and her life is broken apart by the return of her erstwhile lover Every Dill. He is the town’s bad boy. Years before he robbed the bank where Latha worked, went to prison, joined the army, and now returns as a hellfire preacher.
The resolution of this relationship ( Will they get back together ?) is the core of the book and it’s presented through Dawny’s eyes, the narrator’s omniscient view, and the opinions of the other villagers.
The whole thing works perfectly. It is very funny – even surreal. The bootlegger up on the mountain has imprisoned a revenue man in his barn and only lets him go after his daughter has seduced the poor man into marriage.
It’s also very moving. Harington doesn’t shy away from complexity. People are complicated; they change their minds- they act inconsistently- and all this is reflected in the book.
Harington’s novels are easy to read – you don’t notice the complexities because they are so completely embedded in the text. But he makes language really sit up and dance. One incident can be described by three or more participants. He describes two love-makings – years apart in time- as though they happen in the same time.
“ Lightning Bug” is in the tradition of Chaucer ( for it’s cheerful vulgarity) Dylan Thomas for its use of language and Antony Trollope for its compassionate view of people.
I’ve started the next one “ Some Other Place The Right Place” – it’s wierd, totally involving. I shall report back.