- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

New collections have been published by two great, contemporary and very different American authors — Joyce Carol Oates and Wendell Berry. The former, one of the most prolific and well-known figures on the literary scene today, needs no introduction. Mr. Berry may not be as familiar, but he has been publishing essays, poetry, novels and short fiction for the past 50 years. He still lives and farms in his native Kentucky. His abiding respect and affection for this land and its people are a tribute to the American experience.

Mr. Berry’s That Distant Land (Shoemaker & Hoard, $26, 440 pages) comprises 27 magnificent, interrelated stories that seamlessly span almost 100 years in the history of Port William, an imaginary town and farming community in the hills of Kentucky. On one level, it’s about the American dream — not the solo rags-to-riches version, but the communal one upon which much of our country was built. It’s about how the poor and uneducated cultivated the land, fed the nation, and managed to achieve a decent living beyond mere subsistence. They did so not simply through their own back-breaking efforts, but through the collaborative efforts of all in the community.

On a deeper level, this wondrous collection is about what it means to be a human being living amongst other human beings. To flourish, even as individuals, we need to honor this fundamental bond of interdependence — both to those in the past and those in the present. For the characters of “That Distant Land,” it is “the membership of kin and friends that held them always.”

In the title story, Elton, a young man raised by a harsh stepfather, stands to lose a farm given to him by a neighbor. He resists the help of Wheeler, the local lawyer, because “the man who longs to be independent cannot bear to be grateful.”

Wheeler says: “I mean you’re a man indebted to a dead man. So am I. So was he. That’s the story of it. Back of you is Jack Beechum. Back of him was Ben Feltner. Back of him was, I think, his own daddy.” Elton insists he cannot repay them, and Wheeler replies, “It’s not accountable, because we’re dealing in goods and services that we didn’t make, that can’t exist at all except as gifts … The life of a neighborhood is a gift.

“I know that if you bought a calf from Nathan Coulter you’d pay him for it, and that’s right. But aside from that, you’re friends and neighbors, you work together, and so there’s lots of giving and taking without a price.”

From the outset, one is beguiled by these seemingly “simple” folk, who are so grand in so many ways. Scarcity is balanced by plenty, uncertainty by constancies. Those constancies are respect, kinship, duty, and generosity. Theirs was a “world ruled by instinctive decency.”

A number of the characters are featured in multiple stories. They grow and age and pass away, leaving the reader with many a lump in the throat. Among the most endearing and prominent are Tol (Ptolemy) Proudfoot and his wife, Miss Minnie, who appear in “A Consent,” “Watch With Me,” “The Lost Bet,” “Nearly to the Fair” and “The Solemn Boy.”

Mr. Berry’s descriptions of people and the land are measured, yet vivid and even lyrical at times. “Tol was overabundant in both size and strength. And perhaps because animate creatures tended to get out of his way, he paid not much attention to himself.” In “A Friend of Mine,” a now middle-aged Elton triumphs over the sheer physical challenge of harvesting tobacco.

“While he rested he preserved in his body the momentum of his work, as one might hold in mind the tune of a song, and now he gave himself back to it again … Going the way he was going was a hard way to travel, but he was moving like a dancer in his dance, momentum carrying him through across the downfalling of the day.”

• • •

If “That Distant Land” is about the good and honorable impulses that course through human nature, Joyce Carol Oates’ I Am No One You Know (Ecco, $24.95, 256 pages) is about malevolence and those who suffer or overcome its consequences. This is a distressing, often gruesome, but never gratuitous set of 19 tales that explore, in part, the latent capacity for evil that can be awakened in ordinary people.

Why read such a tough book? Because Ms. Oates deliberately holds a mirror up to our society, to goad us into taking more responsibility for the weak and unprotected in our midst, particularly children. “The Girl With the Blackened Eye” will remind some readers of Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel, “The Lovely Bones.” It is also chillingly close to the real-life case of Marc Dutroux, the Belgian child torturer, who was finally caught and sentenced this past spring.

In the story, a 15-year-old girl is abducted by a serial murderer. Her harrowing experience is made all the more searing by this indictment: “I was trying not to think of those strangers who must’ve seen me, sure they saw me, and turned away, uncertain what they’d seen but knowing it was trouble, not wanting to know more.”

“Me and Wolfie, 1979” is about a manic-depressive mother who alternately hits and depends on her 13-year-old son, while picking up violent hitchhikers for one-night stands. “He’d known from an early age he had to protect her. True, Wolfie sometimes showed up bruised at school. But Me bruised herself, worse. For every hurt dealt to her son she loved, Me dealt herself a dozen.”

In “Curly Red,” hate crimes are seen through the eyes of a little girl whose family sends her away after she reveals the truth about the murder of a black teenager. What makes the perpetrators tick? What kind of parents raised these brutes? Is family loyalty sacred above all else? In the universe of this collection, the answers are not pleasant.

After two gratifying years writing short fiction round-ups, this will be my last column. Whether we are aware of it or not, authors and readers share an intimate, symbiotic relationship through imagination; I hope I have animated this relationship and shared with you the essence of the stories being reviewed.

Shaazka Beyerle lives and works in Europe.

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