Alternative Living

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Sunday, January 4, 2009


By Carolyn Chute

Atlantic Monthly. 384 pp. $24

There's a grand and unsettling messiness to Carolyn Chute's fiction, a roiling stew of cajoling comedy, political diatribe and incisively rendered portraits of rural poverty and despair. Beginning with her first and best-known novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Chute has set about chronicling the lives of those who find themselves excluded from the consumption-centered, achievement-obsessed conformity of privileged society. These are folks who cling to guns a bit more than to God, and Chute makes no bones about where her allegiances lie. She too sees America as a mess; she too believes we all deserve better; she too is mad as hell.

At the center of Chute's new novel, The School on Heart's Content Road, are two children: 6-year-old Jane Meserve and 15-year-old Mickey Gammon. With her mother in prison, Jane has wound up living at "the Settlement," a commune with an apparently polygamous leader, Gordon St. Onge, whose interests include alternative energy, organic farming and social equality. Mickey lands at the Settlement after dropping out of high school and being evicted from his half-brother Donnie's house. Jane and Mickey strike up a friendship of sorts, and together they witness the violent unraveling of their adoptive home.

Here Chute's vision of America is dark indeed. St. Onge's first wife tries to explain his character by observing, "Yes, sympathy hurts. But rage hurts too, if it can't leap out to strike." Both sympathy and rage are everywhere: in a mother's anguished efforts to acquire pain medication for her dying infant, in a girl's desperate longing to be reunited with her mother. Page by page, the anger and frustration build, not simply in the characters but in the book itself, and it is easy to fear that the message will overtake the story.

The saving grace in this novel, as in all of Chute's work, is the levity amidst all the anger. Again and again, she's just plain funny, and to be that funny, of course, you've also got to be smart. And so a television in the novel brays absurdly cloying enticements, and car bumper stickers proclaim the drivers' children to be honor students all, and even God (who appears in the novel) refuses to take sides. "No right, no wrong," God says. "No ugly, no lovely. No conservative, no liberal. Just chemistry. Just spark. Just the hum of it all."

-- John Gregory Brown, the author of "Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery" and "Audubon's Watch."

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