A Backwoods Odyssey
GO WITH ME
By Castle Freeman Jr.
Steerforth. 160 pp. $21.95
Chivalry isn't dead; it has just retreated to the backwoods of Vermont. Far beyond the range of leaf-peepers, quaint B&Bs and wealthy liberals lie millions of acres of dark forest, the kind of rich soil that chivalric romance has grown in for centuries. James Fenimore Cooper first saw the possibilities of moving the knights errant of medieval Europe to New England's woods, and now Castle Freeman Jr. performs an equally radical transplant with Go With Me, his oddly witty tale of a damsel in distress.
The story takes place on a midsummer day in a small Vermont town. A scrappy young woman named Lillian asks the sheriff to do something about a bully who's been stalking her. Blackway has already smashed her windshield and killed her cat. The sheriff knows this creep, but he tells her, "The law can't help you." His advice: Leave town. When, on principle, she refuses, he sends her down to the old mill to ask for help.
There she finds Whizzer, who owns what's left of the chair shop that employed generations of this town before cheap imports put it out of business. When an oak tree crushed his legs 10 years ago, "he ascended to the level of management," which these days means "enjoying the attention, the regard, the tender care of a small company of loyal friends."
Whizzer and the gang receive Lillian's complaint with a shrug, until she upbraids them with the ancient code: "What's wrong with you? I come to you for help. I've got no place else to go." That's enough to spur them into action, or at least what passes for action among a bunch of men who spend their days drinking beer and telling tall tales.
Two of them volunteer to take care of Blackway. The first is Nate the Great, "a tall, long-boned, heavy-wristed kid: not a scholar, not a talker. Smarter than a horse, not smarter than a tractor." The other is Lester, an old man with a heavy limp. "Was he seventy?" Lillian wonders. "Was he eighty?"
She tries to call them off, but the honorable quest has been launched: "I don't see you've got a lot of choice, here," Whizzer tells her. "You're scared of Blackway. So's everybody else. If you had any sense, you'd leave town. You won't do that. You don't think you should have to. Maybe you're right. 'Course you are. But I don't quite see your next move, is the thing."
And so Lillian reluctantly sets off "with a sixth-grade dropout and a senior citizen who could hardly walk." They're an unlikely trio, in search of a man who grows more monstrous as they near his lair high in the mountains. About the only thing Nate the Great can say is, "I ain't afraid of Blackway," but every time he says it, you think maybe he should be.
Freeman is telling a classic tale here, but he's placed it very plausibly in the grim present day of an economically depressed village. This is obviously a setting he knows well; he lives in Newfane, Vt., and for 25 years he's been a writer for the Old Farmer's Almanac, that atavistic collection of weather predictions and homespun advice. Go With Me ambles along with that same mixture of corny irony and shrewd wisdom.
But this isn't the quaint Vermont of maple syrup and romantic ski weekends. Tracking down Blackway takes Lillian and her defenders to cinderblock bars and crack houses, places where "loggers, hunters, campers, hikers had gone . . . and never been seen again." Freeman knows just how to mingle the dark legends of this place with the violent reality of small-town crime. Nate and Lester confront Blackway's old partners, grotesque characters who are either still quaking in terror or out for blood. One of my favorites was a man with a black and gray beard who looked "like he was in the act of eating a skunk headfirst." As night settles in, it's hard to imagine that all this won't end very badly. Lester reminds them: "We've passed over. Now we got to go through."
Meanwhile, the guys back at the mill keep up their play-by-play. Freeman has a lot of fun with these good ol' boys, part knights of the Round Table, part Greek chorus -- a hillbilly version of Euripides:
"Blackway's a fellow you don't want to fool with."
"Blackway's bad news."
"Blackway's kind of beyond the law."
As the violent confrontation approaches, they fill us in on his past exploits and weigh the odds (very slim) of anyone standing against him. Much of the novel is told through this dialogue, and Freeman has a good ear for the wobbly cadence of their banter, a mixture of rhetorical questions and social commentary. You half expect to meet Darryl and his other brother Darryl. These guys have a sweetness and slyness about them that's affecting. "They don't change," Freeman writes. "Time doesn't pass for them." You could say the same for good storytelling like this. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to email@example.com.