BY NOW, as readers, we have come to know the trademarks of backwoods poverty -- Southern backwoods poverty, that is: junked cars and weary women, barking dogs and barefoot children, shotguns and whiskey and hope, all run dry. These things have pretty much held true from Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi to Chattahoochee, Georgia to Dogpatch. And now, in her first novel, Carolyn Chute gives us a Northern territory to add to the list. Egypt, Maine may not be found on any map, but we can guess that it lies not far from the real-life towns of Poland, Peru or China, Maine, and we can see, for certain, that it's close to the bone for Carolyn Chute. "This book was involuntarily researched," reads a quote from Chute on the cover, "I have lived poverty. I didn't CHOOSE it. No one would choose humiliation, pain and rage."
It's fair to say that not even the Beans, Egypt's prevailing overgrown, hulking, low-life family would CHOOSE humiliation, pain and rage, but, if that's all life dishes out to them, they'll slurp it right up and, maybe, even thrive on it. Chute gives us our first look at the Beans from the vantage point of a little blond goody-goody named Earlene Pomerleau who lives in a ranch house across the road from the Beans' turquoise blue mobile home. Earlene's daddy teaches her a few basic truths about life: "If it runs, a Bean will shoot it! If it falls, a Bean will eat it," Daddy says, and his lip curls. A million times Daddy says, "Earlene, don't ever go over on the Beans' side of the right-of-way. Not ever!"
Naturally, this is all the incentive that Earlene needs. She is drawn to the big, bad Beans just the way people are drawn to the scene of fire and car wrecks. When Rubie Bean, the hugest and most terrible Bean of them all, is stabbed and dumped into the center of the right-of-way, Earlene is the first one on the spot. She stares down on the widening circle of blood and reassures him, "In heaven they got streets of gold." Later on, fresh from her church Christmas pageant, still wearing her angel costume, Earlene allows herself to be lured off into the dark by shy, awkward Beal Bean to see a "miracle" -- a litter of puppies born to his dog, Jet. "These puppies don't have no father," Beal tells her. "Wouldn't that make 'em the sons of God?"
The fact is that many of the Beans -- Beal included -- are as fatherless as those pups. Chute takes us right to the innards of the family secrets and what we find there is every bit as messy as we might have expected: incest and brutality and monumental ignorance. Chute does not gloss over any of it, but what she does do is handle it with astonishing humor and good grace. In scene after scene, her vision, which is both knowing and funny, sustains us.
There is Roberta Bean, for instance, the mother of nine illegitimate children (many of them sired by members of her own family) who takes a shine to her new neighbor from the city, March Goodspeed, a squeamish and particular man. Roberta shoots bunnies with her .22 and culls out their choicest parts to put into a bread bag, "crowding them into careful sticky intercourse so they will fit -- footless, handless." This, she leaves taped to Goodspeed's door as a sweet, doomed offering of love. And, there is Marie Bean, Rubie's abandoned wife who dolls herself up and bakes brownies in an effort to woo a stolid, reluctant junkman. In the end, she has to come right out and beg him for a kiss -- and the kiss she finally gets is comical and heartbreaking and, entirely, unforgettable.
IN GENERAL, the Beans are not what we would call good-looking. They have massive bodies, small heads, bad teeth and "fox color" eyes. Their complexions are hardly peaches and cream. But Chute takes care to give them a wonderful, low, brutish appeal. There is a kind of thrilling strength in their shoulders and arms and big hands. And, when their logging trucks rumble down the road, the whole earth seems to shake. It's not surprising, then, that as clean little Earlene Pomerleau grows up, she finds herself watching big, sweaty Beal Bean from a distance and thinking the unthinkable: she wonders for instance, if it's possible to tell just where his beard ends and his chest hair begins.
Finally, after her daddy has washed out her mouth with soap once too often, Earlene runs off with Beal. Eventually she becomes a Bean herself and bears big Bean babies with fox-color eyes. And her life with Beal turns out to be pretty much everything her daddy might have predicted: it's degrading and impovished and, in the end, disaster strikes. But, this time, we see it all differently. Because, like Earlene Pomerleau, we're no longer looking at Bean life from across the right-of-way. Chute has moved us into the tumble-down house and we have watched, in the night, as Earlene unlaces her husband's worn work boots and kisses his big, tired feet. What Chute has given us is an inside look at Bean love and it's changed our focus for good.
One of the trickiest bits in writing a regional novel must be getting the dialect to ring true. Chute does a fairly credible job, but, after a while, it just gets a trifle much, contemplatin' all those dropped g's. And the funny part of it is that Maine backwoods dialect, in print, seems generic, like those junked cars and weary women. It reads just like Southern backwoods dialect. Still, we're never left doubting that this is Chute's own turf. She has staked it out and we look forward to visiting it again. Carolyn Chute may well have lived in poverty, but what we learn here is that she has a wealth of knowledge about the human spirit.