- - Wednesday, December 12, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

CRY WILDERNESS

By Frank Capra

Rare Bird Books, $26.95, 272 pages

Twenty-one years after the death of director Frank Capra in 1991, his son, Tom, opened a box of his father’s possessions. Inside were two very different manuscripts, both written in 1966 with edits made in 1968. Rejected by Hollywood, unable to find a studio for his films, it seems Mr. Capra was still telling stories on his typewriter up in the High Sierras. And boy, did he have some stories to tell.

If that sounds like the beginning of a tall tale, get ready for a taller one. “Cry Wilderness,” one of the two manuscripts unearthed, was published as a “discovered” novel complete with a slightly incomplete text in October. Fans of Mr. Capra’s films will be delighted to add another work to the oeuvre. They may just need to remember: Not all movie men are meant to be novelists.



“Cry Wilderness” is set in Mono County, California, home to alkaline Mono Lake. This county is also home to our narrator, Frank Capra himself, who finds himself involved in a caper: He and a good-hearted local sheriff take two deer, roadkill, to two local hermits named Bear Bait and Dry Rot. Those deer are the rightful meals of local prisoners, but our Sheriff wants to make a statement: Even though he’s been told to evict the two hermits, he believes that Mono County belongs to every man, not just the invading rich vacationers.

Naturally, uproar ensues. The Sheriff is promptly fired, demands a hearing, and becomes the catalyst for a raging battle between two different sides of Mono County’s political movers and shakers. Mr. Capra himself stokes the flames, with the help of a few other locals. The issue at hand appears to be whether or not Bear Bair and Dry Rot should be allowed to live in the woods, or should be strongly encouraged to depart. However, the hearing reveals long growing rivalries between those who believe in compassion, and those who believe that might makes right. It ends with a very improbable shot out of left field, to say the least.

Now, honestly, the major problem with this book isn’t that it’s a tall tale. In fact, it’s full of smaller fish stories and a certain twang that makes the exaggerated plot really sing. The missing sections are a bit jarring, but even they don’t detract from the overall story. In part, that’s because there’s not a ton of story there. Like a lot of classic films, “Cry Wilderness” is bedazzled with fantastic lines hanging off a plot so scanty it would have never made it past the censors.

Mr. Capra excels in the moments and fails horribly in the long haul. He has so many good lines and aphorisms in this book that you could stock your arsenal of tweets for a year. Among my favorites: “The gods do not subtract from the allotted span of men’s lives the hours spent in fishing.” He calls Mark Twain “a disease” in the most complimentary of terms. His Robin Hood banter is quite winning as well.

But then, there’s the book a whole. His characters bloviate about the rights of man, obsessively reference John Muir, and pull plot points out of their hats like dead trick rabbits. He has a gift for banter. I’m not sure where exactly his gift for structure vanished to, but maybe a novel is a different beast than a film.

And, of course, there’s the usual problem with books “of their time”: Remarks about race and gender are predictably out of date. However, in this case, those remarks are so divorced from contextual clues as to the time and setting that each lands very, very loud.

In the opening to his yarn, Mr. Capra says, “Writing is a virus that strikes almost everybody at some time.” Robbed of the resources to make films, Mr. Capra was afflicted with the most hated but understandable of ambitions: To write novels. This was, we might guess, a novel of necessity. The brilliant director of such classics as “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” may not have had as compelling a style on the printed page as he had in film, but you can catch the scent of the same ideas and style in this book as you find in his movies.

Even so, I wouldn’t say that this book will succeed or fail with readers entirely on their devotion to Frank Capra the movie man. As a book, it is intentional, if not well executed, and can be appreciated as literature in its own right. Indeed, perhaps a toast given to those two hermits in the book best captures the appeal of this novel: It’s beautiful, but it stinks a lot.

• Tara Wilson Redd is the author of “The Museum of Us” (Wendy Lamb Books, 2018).

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