By Michael Rothschild
Viking. 230 pp. $17.95
THERE ARE a few things worth waiting 17 years for: true love I suppose, or maybe one's dream house or that trip to Venice. To this short list we can now add Wondermonger, Michael Rothschild's stunning collection of stories, his first since the publication of Rhapsody of a Hermit in 1973.
The nine tales in Wondermonger range from the eerie to the merely fabulous, and most of them have macabre underpinnings. Because of this, perhaps, he has been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but Rothschild is really sui generis. His work is set in his native Maine, not Vacationland or Stephen King's dark suburbia but a stark land where "The Way be not easy," where a city "sport" and the guide he engages for bear hunting are antagonists as much as the men and their ursine prey.
The title story of this collection is a tall tale about Mordecai Rime, a logger who can "jump higher -- squat lower -- jig better -- bite harder -- drink deeper -- . . .and talk quicker'n any man . . ." Actually, Mordecai's list of accomplishments has been somewhat abridged for a family newspaper, because this is a ribald tale those loggers might have told around a camp stove: how the whoring Mordecai is finally tamed by schoolmistress Lucille Triller. But where most stories would give us "and they lived happily ever after," Rothschild's goes several steps further, into a horrifying account of betrayal and revenge, and finally into the furious black heart of the Maine winter itself. "Wondermonger" is a classic story, one that should be anthologized and read aloud for years to come.
I can think of no other writer who so captures the terror and grandeur of the north woods -- Algernon Blackwood, maybe, author of those supernatural standards "The Wendigo" and "The Willows." But Rothschild's pieces are not ghost stories. The terror here comes from the commonplace and the natural world: a longtime friend gone mad in "Dog in the Manger"; a child's drawings in "A Land Without Fossils"; a treed bear in "The Strike Hound." Rothschild's magic lies in invoking a world most of us have forgotten, or never knew; not the tropical neverland of Garcia Marquez but a particularly Yankee world of wonders:
"Half the nights he strolled through the cherry and fireweed speckling the charred meadow with the puppy tripping alongside him; or he sat by the river and listened to the last songbirds sing like wet fingers on glass. He lay in the damp sedge, hour after hour following the dark concert of sounds until it appeared that each song was mated to another and no note was left unanswered . . . But when the exultations of woodcocks fell breathless from the skytops, when it seemed concord was come to earth, then miserable Mordecai Rime thought up songs about his woman in Sunbury Town, and as he made them up he sang them out loud, along with all the rest of the nightsongs, and felt better for it . . ."
ROTHSCHILD's gift for evoking the outdoors, especially animals, is nothing short of miraculous, but readers expecting dogs and bears a` la James Herriot or Earnest Thompson Seton will be disappointed. The dogs of "The Strike Hound" and "Dog in the Manger" are almost alien creatures, nearly demonic in the intensity with which they hunt and gambol and mate. The human protagonists also seem to have been sprung from some harsher world and time. Vengeful Indians and ravaged colonists, dog breeders and lonely elevator operators; even the 5-year-old boy of "A Land Without Fossils," who draws maps of the country he lived in "before I lived here. Before I was a son. I remember." This last piece is as haunting as the title novella, its background contemporary but no less unsettling as a father contemplates the eerily beautiful world his son has created:
"The memory of a child, what an awful thing. For the first time in my adult life, for the first time since the death of my father, I began to pray. I dropped to my knees on the snow and prayed that my son was right; that it was so; that I might believe the child remembered."
Rothschild farms in western Maine, and is also a noted sculptor who has exhibited in the U.S. and lectured in China. He has said of his 17-year hiatus from fiction, "I work on my fiction when I have time, mostly late at night. But there is very little time." One wishes him endless nights in the years to come, and time enough that we may not have to wait so long for his next collection.
Elizabeth Hand lives in Maine and is the author of a novel, "Winterlong," which will be published this fall.