THE TREE OF LIFE. A Novel by Hugh Nissenson. Harper & Row. 159 pp. $15.95.
IN THE 1812 of Hugh Nissenson's Northwest Ohio, death didn't have to be invented. A man could be captured by Indians, buried up to the neck, and have his brains boiled by a small fire. A couple could see cholera kill their daughters -- one, two, three, four -- on successive days. Historical novels tell us how other people lived. The Tree of Life shows how they died, how they lived with death, and, by extension, how unnecessary -- how chosen -- contemporary death often is.
Another irony of Nissenson's title: if The Tree of Life suggests a deep-rooted and many-branched family chronicle, a Michener- like production, the novel itself is an artfully and authentically compressed journal covering, in less than 200 pages, 18 months in te hamlet of Mansfield, Ohio. Called by its narrator, Tom Keene, a "Waste Book," an old term for a diary, the account is a novelistic "Waste Land" -- a collage, like Eliot's poem, of precise and representative fragments. Jammed together are Keene's business as liquor-maker and pleasure as liquor- drinker, the condition of his bowels and the state of his soul, frontier lore and Harvard allusions.
History is next door: Keene's best friend is John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed; British-armed Delawares live nearby; and newspaper clippings supply war news. Indians, blacks, southern whites, recent European immigrants, and westering Yankees create a compacted sociology. Even the materials and styles of The Tree of Life are cross-cut, jagged: accounting entries lie alongside poems, vulgar jokes are recorded next to sermons, and woodcuts, architectural plans, maps, and Indian designs interrupt the prose.
Giving narrative momentm to Nissenson's researched inventory is a dual plot, where the personal and the historical, love and war, intersect. As a Protestant minister in Maine, Keene has lost his faith when it could not master his sexual desires or comfort his slow-dying vestryman. Now widowed and living alone, manufacturing corn liquor "salvation" for himself and neighbors, old at age 43, Keene courts the newly widowed (at age 22) Fanny Cooper, a Methodist who took up Swedenborgian mysticism to help her forget the fly on the blackened foot of her rattlesnake-bitten husband. But even at the ragged edge of civilization, scruples retard natural attraction. Fanny's mourning period, Tom's sexual shame, their religious differences, his drinking, and her family responsibilities all delay their marriage.
HISTORY HAS no such scruples. The whites of Mansfield both alienate the neighboring Delawares and sell them liquor and gunpowder. Britain and America stumble toward war. Tecumseh makes his alliances. When these large forces break into Fanny and Tom's lives, when her father-in-law is killed in an Indian raid, she is captured, a friend is tortured before her eyes, niceties are put aside and their personal impasse ends. Just before their marriage, Fanny tells Tom "Help me live without Jesus."
Sentimentality, religious and otherwise, was a pervasive and dangerous curse of 19th-century American life and letters, railed at by Melville and Whitman, mocked by Twain, still practiced by some contemporary historical novelists, and replaced by fact and irony in The Tree of Life. "All Creation," Johnny Appleseed quotes Swedenborg, "is a sign of God's love"; but killing weather, disease, mosquitoes, fleas, snakes, owls, crows, and bears -- say nothing of human violence -- signify otherwise.
Johnny assures an old man that he will work at the same job in heaven as on earth, and that there is no death in Swedenborg's heaven; but this good news, says the old man, 'fixes me. . . . I'm a grave digger." All men may have been created equal in 1776, but by 1812 Indians who are manipulated by the government, a runaway slave who can be fully free only in Canada, and U.S. soldiers who are profiteering from people they are supposed to protect deny this fond ideal.
Still, The Tree of Life is celebratory: of backwoods lucidity, sensory knowledge, wit, neighborly charity, courage, and, despite their roots in his madness, Johnny Appleseed's plantings -- real trees of life. Transaction is Nissenson's theme from beginning to end: perceptually and physically trading with the world rather than imposing sentimental and often self-destructive ideas. Even the proud idea of character, the unique and stable self, is fruitfully diffused into Keene's multiple transactions. His journalizing self is distributed among others and things, not narcissistic, a welcome alternative to fictional mirror-gazing.
Enjoying the Yankee economy and blunt wit of Keene's voice, appreciating Nissenson's rigorous compression, dreading the sudden horror of everyday life, this reader of The Tree of Life illogically wanted more of everything, a long-lived and many-paged Tom Keene. But the novel -- to be true -- had to be exactly what it is, and that is very good indeed.