SMALL TOWN FREEDOM
There are some complications to this, sure, but the small Maine town for author Carolyn Chute is safe. That’s because it’s transparent. For better or worse, everyone knows everyone else. “They know you to the bone,” she writes in her 1989 essay “The Other Maine.” “When you hear (your neighbor’s) car or truck pull up under the old maple trees by your door, you don’t run to put on 50 layers of makeup and your best leather skirt. There’s no hiding you. You don’t need to. That’s freedom.”
Ironic, then, that for Portland writer Monica Wood—whose prose is conventional and unassuming next to Chute’s furious, Bouncing Betty–like bursts—the small town is a much murkier place. And less free. That’s because we only think we know each other.
In “That One Autumn,” one of nine linked stories collected into Ernie’s Ark and just released by Chronicle Books, Wood gives us her philosophy in one sharply focused moment. Marie, on the run from a marriage gone awry, has been kidnapped by a young couple also on the run, but from the cops. Rather than kill Marie as her boyfriend instructs, a better-hearted Tracey goes through the motions of tying her captive up, before, “with shocking tenderness,” cutting her harmlessly just above the hairline.
“You chose a hell of a life for yourself, Tracey,” Marie whispered.
“Yeah,” Tracey said, closing her palm lightly over the knife. She got up. “But at least I chose.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“Ditto. Take care.”
Wood’s fictional Abbott Falls, Maine, is full of characters like Marie and Tracey. They’re essentially decent people—bitter, out-of-work pipefitters, cheerful but unfulfilled florists, cynical CEOs, adulterous university professors, and lonely software consultants—all looking for love and understanding, and trying to figure out how to get it from each other. Ernie’s Ark, meanwhile, is full of unexpected, sometimes quirky confrontations illuminated by only good-enough prose and insights that are poignant and altogether too neat.
Because the town’s paper mill is on strike, class tensions are at a high simmer. Racial epithets are fired with a sniper’s precision, and one unlucky visitor gets his brand-new Mercedes busted up by baseball bats. Abbott Falls, which was modeled after Wood’s hometown of Mexico, Maine, is the sort of place where 50 layers of makeup are a survival strategy, and the author is at her best when peeling back those layers.
In “At the Mercy,” a father and daughter argue over whether an uncommonly large tip at a diner is garish and disrespectful. For them, class is not something to be felt so much as negotiated. “What my daughter believes about the common man,” concludes the father, who is also the mill’s CEO, “is that the common man wants nothing more than respect and recognition. Plus a roomy dining-room table on which to feed his five noble, sad-eyed children whose superior intelligence shall never be known because of people like me intent on keeping the tired tired, the poor poor, and the masses huddled. Unlike me, however, my daughter has never been a common man. What the common man wants is money, and that’s all she wrote.”
By story’s end, the two may be no closer to their waitress, but they’re much closer to each other.
Elsewhere, Wood brings race into the fray, to minimal effect, and pits a striker, who is contemplating suicide, against his scab brother. Class is the author’s preoccupation—could it be any different in a Maine mill town?—but “Take Care Good Boy” follows a boy’s adventure into the quasi-wilderness, à la Thoreau. “The Joy Business,” meanwhile, concentrates on the compromises a wife is forced to make for the unusual love of a stepdaughter.
That stepdaughter, the remarkably intelligent eighth-grader Francine, is perhaps Wood’s most vivid character. Any time she appears, the prose jumpstarts. Wood has the unfortunate and limiting habit of casting her characters into movie clichés—a man shakes his fist “like the mean old man in the movies”; another character is “like a ham actor in a silent movie”; still another feels like “a character in a movie, a man on his way to boot camp or a gold rush, leaving the womenfolk behind.” Francine, on the other hand, possesses “a voice that could start a tractor,” “an eerie, otherworldly voice as creepy as a sleeping snake.” And when dancing, she “moved like a stalled snowplow.”
The daughter of a university professor—who is perhaps the collection’s flattest, most disagreeable, and least interesting character—Francine does not find an easy place among her more salt-of-the-earth peers. Add to that her geeky-savant personality, and you have the consummate outsider: She sees everything—from her father’s affairs to Big Labor’s racial hypocrisy.
At times her insights push against what would be plausible for even a sharp girl her age. A racial remark made by her father “feels like a prejudice all its own,” while in his talk, “which is always smart and well-turned, she hears his desperation, his smallness. He likes to tell people he chose Abbott Falls because it is a real place inhabited by real people, but in truth he can’t afford a house on College Row.”
As a rule in Ernie’s Ark, no insight goes unremarked upon. That creates situations like the one with Francine’s father, where readers are told information they already know or can otherwise intuit; however, this may prove to be less true when considering the stories discreetly instead of as a cohesive group, which they happen to be. The collection loses steam, too, as those insights blend into one another. As much as the characters strike individual poses, in the end they are all surrendering, yearning, succumbing, forgiving. It’s as if each story were aiming for the same target.
The collection is bookended by an account of the quixotic art project of Ernie Whitten, who has set about building a boat of biblical size and effect in his back yard. “Ernie ran a hand over the rough surface of his ark,” Wood writes, “remembering that Noah’s undertaking had been a result of God’s despair. God was sorry he’d messed with any of it, the birds of the air and beasts of the forest and especially the two-legged creatures who insisted on lying and cheating and killing their own brothers. Still, God had found one man, one man and his family, worth saving and therefore had deemed a pair of everything else worth saving, too.”
Such is Monica Wood’s near bottomless empathy that she should want to place her character—and herself—in the role of God. Such is her weakness that she should need to tell us so.
Ernie’s Ark: Stories by Monica Wood (Chronicle, 191 pages)
Bangor (ME) Daily News, May 2002