DAVID PLANTE is a tremendously gifted and
accomplished writer, and a most appealing one as well, but at this point in his chronicling of the history of the Francoeur family he has put the loyalty of his readers to the acid test. The Woods is the third novel about the Francoeurs, a working-class French-Canadian family in Rhode Island, and specifically about Daniel Francoeur, one of the more transparently autobiographical figures in contemporary American fiction. Like its predecessors in the Francoeur story, The Family and The Country, The Woods is elegantly written and thick with emotional resonance; but it is so often so self-absorbed that the reader, whose interest in Daniel's late-adolescent rites of passage is perhaps less intense than the author's, is likely to find his mind wandering elsewhere.
On Plante's behalf, it needs to be said that a central subject of The Woods is late-adolescent self-absorption; to dismiss the novel as merely narcissistic would be to misunderstand what Plante, whether successfully or not, is attempting to do. At this time in his young life, Daniel Francoeur is a student at a college near Boston. The novel opens there, then flashes back to a previous summer when, vacationing at his family's lakeside house, Daniel is both literally and figuratively in "the woods"--a period when he confronts his psychological isolation from the world and when he attempts to reach an understanding of the possibilities and limitations that life offers him.
Plante has a very clear appreciation of the complexities of the late-adolescent mind. His depiction of its fiercely contradictory timidity and arrogance is subtle and sensitive. The Woods conveys a rare understanding of the tension between the young person's belief that on the one hand "you can have everything" and, on the other, his fear of the constricting obligations that lie in wait for him: military service, work, marriage, fatherhood, indebtedness, domestic routine. For Daniel, nearing maturity in the late 1950s, the Army looms as symbol of all that he fears and hates, and a letter that he composes to his draft board expresses his anguish:
"I am writing to say that I will die before I am made a soldier in your army, that if you have me at all in your army you'll have me in a pine box. You will not have me. But if you insist--and I know your will is so strong you can force me as far as killing me--I will kill myself, I will kill myself before I allow you to kill me, to assert that I, I, I am in control of my body, and not you."
His body is, of course, a storehouse of longings, some of them vague and some of them quite specific but all of them passionate in the way that only adolescent longings can be. All of them boil down to the question that haunts every young person: "What do I want?" In particular the longing is sexual, though Daniel is uncomfortable identifying it as such, and it becomes focused on his summertime neighbor, Lillian Cooper. She is somewhat older than he--how much older Plante does not, for whatever reason, make clear--and possessed of her own supply of misgivings and yearnings. But she understands Daniel in ways that he himself does not. She tells him: "I want you to come out of your dark woods," and: "What I object to is that you always seem to be alone in your woods, doing nothing." Though she does not want to be drawn into "the woods" with him, eventually she responds to her own "longing, longing, not for him or what he could give her, but for everything, and nothing she knew," and offers him the comfort that they both need.
This central section of the novel--novella is really the more accurate word for it--is noteworthy for its sustained sexual tension and for its fine descriptive prose. A characteristic paragraph:
"She got into the rowboat and he pushed it out on to the lake, from which mist rose. The water about his ankles was warm. Lillian, sitting on the seat in the stern, the tackle box open beside her, was choosing a fly as he shoved the boat one last time and jumped aboard. He climbed over the tangled rope and bailing can to the rower's seat, took up the oars and slowly, silently, pulled the boat out from the dim shore. The ripples cut away from either side and ran wider and wider apart the further out they got. All about the lake were massed shadows; small lights beamed out. Faint voices from the screened porches carried across the water to them and muted bursts of laughter, and the sounds of croaking toads, and from above the caw caw of a bird in the late air--all sounds which occurred in an enormous silence. Lillian pointed to the sudden little whirlpools where the fish broke water."
As that paragraph demonstrates, Plante is an exceptionally deliberate, careful, economical writer. His prose is as notable, and laudable, for what he leaves out as what he puts in; there is no waste here, no fat. Yet when it comes to the explication of his characters' emotions, Plante's desire to be clear and precise leads him into difficulty. He is not content to show us how they are feeling; he insists on telling us. He gives them thoughts that people simply do not think: "He lowered his face to kiss a breast and as he did he wondered, with the great spacious wonder of why this should occur to him, what made of the body a soul," or: "The longing that swelled through him was larger than his body could contain. He threw the sketch pad on the floor and lay back on the bed. His longing was for the awareness of an extraordinary world outside him, a world which would come suddenly in the apparition of a body he could not then imagine--"
Plante has made the mistake of intellectualizing what is not, in point of fact, an intellectual or rational process: an adolescent's struggleeto come to terms with a world considerably more ambiguous than he is capable, at this point, of understanding. Not merely does Daniel Francoeur spend too much time feeling sorry for himself, but he does so in thoughts and language that are quite implausible for one of his inexperience and immaturity. There's plenty of lovely writing in The Woods, and that is reason enough to read it; but most readers are likely to tire of Daniel's humorless brooding, to wish that Plante himself would leave the woods of self-absorption and get back to the business of examining the world around him.