Saturday, November 14, 2009; 9:10 PM
Donald Harington, an Arkansas novelist whose quirky, experimental books set in the Ozarks gave him a reputation as one of America's finest, if least known, writers, died Nov. 7 of pneumonia at a hospice in Springdale, Ark. He was 73 and had throat cancer and other ailments in recent years.
Mr. Harington wrote 15 novels, including 13 set in the fictional town of Stay More, Ark., and was known more for his stylistic innovation, graceful prose and local color than for his robust sales. He borrowed from Greek mythology and reworked plot elements from classic novels, creating a fictional world that many critics ranked with William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
"Harington is one of the most powerful, subtle and inventive novelists in America," novelist and critic Peter Straub wrote in The Washington Post in 1993. "Everywhere, his work is full of mystery and heartbreak kept afloat by high spirits, sensual pleasure and intellectual joy."
Entertainment Weekly once called him "America's greatest unknown writer."
Yet, despite such praise, Mr. Harington often had a hard time getting published. He had eight agents, whom he described as "rude, indifferent or downright mean," and almost as many publishers. His 2004 novel, "With," was rejected by 40 publishing houses before finding a home with the small Toby Press, which has reprinted all of his books.
Mr. Harington was often labeled a "regional novelist," which he considered "a term of opprobrium, condescension or contempt."
"I happen to write about hillbillies in Stay More, Ark.," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2000, "but my novels are not really hillbilly novels at all."
He used experimental techniques from magical realism and other advanced schools of fiction, giving voice to animals, ghosts and even insects. He illustrated some of his books with his own drawings. Many of his novels reveled in sexuality, including "Ekaterina" (1993), which turned Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" on its head by depicting a female protagonist's pursuit of prepubescent boys.
Mr. Harington wrote during the summer while making his living as a professor of art history. Almost completely deaf since age 12, he used a system of cards to answer questions from students. In peopling his imaginary village of Stay More, however, Mr. Harington's deafness presented a peculiar advantage.
"There was an enormous distinction between the way people talked out in the Ozarks and the way they talked in town," he said in 2005. "Losing my hearing at that particular date embedded the language into my memory. I can still hear these people, the way they sounded in 1948."
Mr. Harington's first Stay More novel, "Lightning Bug," came out in 1970. But many critics consider his finest works to be "The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks" (1975), with its descriptions of buildings and forgotten folk customs, and the autobiographical "Some Other Place. The Right Place" (1972), which Straub called "a vast, delicate, bawdy, playful, reckless masterpiece."
"Donald Harington isn't an unknown writer," novelist and critic Fred Chappell once wrote. "He's an undiscovered continent."