Chicken feathers shimmy and sway on a wire tied to the rearview mirror; a hunk of cartridge belt stuffed with shotgun shells and clothespins is nailed to the dashboard. The novelist's young husband is at the wheel of the rattling pickup, but he doesn't read or write, so she is reading the road signs out loud.
"Exit nine, Pa. Oh, Paaaaah, we're gonna be wicked late!" Carolyn Chute says. Late to the Bookland in Bath, where she will autograph copies of her critically acclaimed, fast-selling first novel, "The Beans of Egypt, Maine."
"Infernally white-trash" one book reviewer called the Bean clan, with their close-set eyes and crowded turquoise house trailers. Poor, incestuous and sometimes violent, with yards of machine parts, spinach cans, babies and dirt. The feckless children of a fictional Egypt, they are no relation the L.L. Beans would claim.
"White trash?" Chute says, and you can see her mouth tighten before it settles into a sly smile. "Who do they think they are? There's a lot of trash up there, too," she says. She gestures beyond the snowbanked highway to a distant universe of lawns and steady paychecks. "It's all relative, you know."
At the curb outside Bath Bookland, she lowers herself from the pickup and strides into the store. Her rubber boots, big as pontoons, make soft sighing sounds on the wall-to-wall. Her moon face floats inside hanks of rust-colored hair. The word gormy comes to mind. As in gawhmy, a Maine adjective meaning large, awkward, unsophisticated.
"A 200-pound Cabbage Patch Doll," as she once described herself.
She was married for the first time at 16, and became a grandmother at 36. This year, her 37th, has been a strange and exhilarating one. There have been more than a dozen book signings and readings. The book was published in November and is already in its fourth printing, with over 70,000 copies sold. Reviewers are comparing her to William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell. And strangest of all, the armies of the professionally curious who've been turning up at the Chute house, tantalized even as they are chastened by the quote on the back of the book:
"This book was involuntarily researched. I have lived poverty. I didn't CHOOSE it. No one would choose humiliation, pain and rage."
As it happens, Carolyn Chute grew up in a clean, new Cape Cod house in a suburb of Portland. Her mother, waiting proudly at the bookstore in neat gray curls and sensible shoes, has the photograph on hand to prove it:
"When the book first came out I said to Carolyn, 'Good God, I hope people don't think that was going on in our house.' We were comfortable."
"She has . . . the divine schizophrenia of the artist, in which a cold eye and passion coexist," wrote a reviewer in the Chicago Tribune.
"An impressive performance," said The New York Times, which included the book in a short list of editors' favorites.
Her editor, who shepherded Thomas Pynchon's first novel as well as novelists William Kennedy and William Trevor, was "absolutely bowled over" by the manuscript. "Very seldom do you see a first novel of this quality," said Cork Smith of Ticknor & Fields. "She has great wisdom combined with an incredible eye and ear."
"All Daddy and I got to look out at is the Beans," 5-year-old Earlene Pomerleau reports in the novel's opening chapter. "Daddy says the Beans are uncivilized animals. PREDATORS, he calls 'em. '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 go over on the Beans' side of the right-of-way. Not ever!' "
Earlene defects anyway and the novel chronicles her marriage and life in the benighted maw of Beandom. Wherein her first husband, Beal Bean, who slept with his aunt before Earlene, is gunned down by police after shooting out the windows of a rich man's house, and her second husband, Reuben Bean, returns tamed after doing time at the state prison for the savage beating of a game warden.
Chute is amazed by the reviewers who found allusions to ancient incest cults in the book. "I didn't realize there was that much going on. But it's sort of neat because it makes the book have an aura about it that I didn't think of. I mean, it might sell a few copies is what I'm saying."
Nor did she intend readers to see Earlene's life among the Beans as a tale of unremitting degradation. When she defends the Beans, she becomes flustered and her pale blue eyes narrow, as if she were defending herself. It becomes clear that she intended the novel as tragic comedy, a story of defiance and occasional triumph. She sympathizes with the Beans. She likes them.
"What poor people go through, it's amazing they don't do more violent things! If they'd just give you a little dignity it might help you stand it better. They suffer no heat, no electricity, while you're working, but then you've got to face all the insults, too.
"People say, 'Well, why don't they get another job, why don't they pick themselves up by their bootstraps?' Well, the people that say that probably have the kind of jobs where they don't work that hard, so maybe they could have another job."
Bean is a common name in Maine, and the real Beans are not amused. They have written to their local newspapers. "These people claim 100,000 Beans around the country, and of course they all have doctoral degrees, they all belong to distinguished societies," Chute says dryly.
Even the non-Beans have complaints. "In my opinion 'The Beans of Egypt, Maine' is neither brilliant nor truthful about poverty in Maine," wrote one woman to the weekly Maine Times. ". . . It is sad to think that people in other states will believe that people in Maine are living like the characters in this book . . ."
Two weeks later, another reader replied: ". . . Carolyn Chute's truth is the truth of experience, of intuition, of art. As for what people in other states will believe about how the poor live, rest easy, people live the same way in all 50 states and the District of Columbia."
When readers tell her they liked the book, but found it depressing, she apologizes, a bit frantically:
"When I was writing it," she will say, "a lot of bad stuff was happening. We were living without electricity, we had no greens, we couldn't live on the food stamps we did get. We were so hungry, and then my baby died. It was a big mess. One thing right after another. Things were happening, things would happen to poor people that I wanted to tell people about. I felt so angry, and when you're angry you want to shoot your mouth off."
Gag Corner is a hamlet near Gorham, which is a village outside Portland. The Chutes own an unheated ranch house, with a warren of unpainted sheds in the yard. There is a crippled pickup in the driveway, a giant woodpile to the side. The geese, Omar and Olive, greet visitors with choleric honks. The effect is ramshackle, but this is still starched-white Yankee country. The Beans would live a few hours north or west of here, in a more hopeless terrain.
Still, Carolyn and Michael Chute, who in bad years get by on less than $3,000, have at times looked like Beans in the eyes of their neighbors. The lawn was the main problem, cluttered with tires and wood and whatever else they had acquired.
"Every time there was a problem in the neighborhood, they'd send the cops here. They figure if you're poor, you're bad." For this reason, Chute has done some thinking about the sociology of lawns:
"With upper- and middle-class lawns, there's more hidden, whereas with working-class or poor lawns, there's more out to see. It just sits right out there. Very honest. Like the people."
She sits reading letters from readers in a small chair in the front room. Some of the letters contain checks from people who have read about her and are worried that she doesn't have enough to eat. The wood stove is lighted, but the air is damp and cold. The windowsills are lined with old blue bottles. There is something stubborn and fierce about her in her faded black long johns and billowy cotton skirt.
"She's very shrewd about her independence," says friend and mentor Ken Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern Maine. "She doesn't want to be taken seriously on easy terms. She wants to propose much more complicated terms for you to find her. And she's very elusive." And unworldly enough to have been momentarily confounded by a revolving door when she went to Boston to meet her editor. And canny enough to know how that plays.
And shy, with a quirky charm. When the University of Southern Maine hired her to teach a creative writing course, she decided that she needed a calendar to keep everything organized. So she bought one large enough to fit in a desk blotter and carried it under her arm. Books she carries in a cardboard box.
Although her tastes and temperament carried her away from there, Chute was a child of the contented Portland suburbs, an experience she describes succinctly: "Very boring. Very sheltered." Her father is an electrical supply salesman from Raleigh, N.C. Her mother was born in Maine.
Chute left home and high school at 16 to marry a man who worked in the local bread factory. They moved to an apartment in working-class South Portland. She had a daughter the same year. Her husband worked the night shift. She stayed home and wrote stories, a habit she'd acquired as a child.
"Stacks and stacks of stuff. If I wrote one story and didn't like it, I just wrote another one." The marriage lasted seven years. She asked for the divorce. It was about then that Beans began to populate her life and her imagination.
"After my divorce a lot of my friends were those kind of people. People who work in factories, or in the woods, or maybe a dairy farm. For years I've been fascinated with people like that. No pretensions. They just live their lives. I found them beautiful. They were all I seemed to be interested in writing about. I wanted to write a novel about a little girl who lives across from some people like this."
She studied psychology at the University of Southern Maine, in Gorham, near Gag Corner, and worked in factories plucking chickens and stapling buckles to plastic shoes. She hated the assembly line -- "They said I was too slow," she says mournfully -- but loved psychology. "When I'm writing I'm always thinking about how people tick."
She worked as a part-time suburban correspondent for the Portland Evening Express. Her editor remembers her as "lacking in self-confidence, almost like an animal who had been mistreated." She turned in lyrical columns about Gorham life, but quaked when she had to report a murder.
And she rescued rats from the university laboratory. "I made a giant apartment house for them, seven feet tall, really decent. I kept it very clean." They preferred her bed, where they chewed holes in the sheets.
When she enrolled in a writing class, her literary talent set her apart. "They were always stories that exploded emotionally," remembers Rosen. "It's as if whenever you looked at something you saw not only the colors but refractions. Writing is the way she sorts all of that out.
"People who had already honed their skills in the suburbs and in college didn't see the same thing in her and they knew they were hearing something special. She has a natural verbal talent, very generous. She was never working for the tiny effect."
"I know the way Beal's beard spreads over the sheet. He don't never cut it. It's like one of those dinky houseplants you get with good intentions, but it takes over, needs a bigger and bigger pot every time you look. The beard fills our bed at night, lies between us, and sometimes I can feel it try to grip me."
Michael Chute stands outside the house. His ancient green work pants sag in exhausted heaps around his legs and his scraggly black beard meanders down the front of his black-and-red plaid jacket. The distinction between Chutes and Beans, between life and art, blurs.
Callused hands hold a length of knotted clothesline. Toto, a tiny mutt the color and texture of a kitchen mop, is attached to the other end, but it is unclear who is anchoring whom. The distinction blurs further when Carolyn Chute explains how she found him.
This was after the divorce, and after the affair with the high school teacher that left her unsettled and unable to write. The teacher, she says, "made me feel very bad about myself, like I was really funny-looking. He wanted me to be more glamorous and he would look in the catalogues and say, 'What about this? What about this?' He bought me this jumpsuit of stretchy fabric and these fancy boots . . . It was awful."
She wrote the description of her ideal man ("green work pants, black hair, black beard, green truck with fish decals, loves guns but loves animals"), painted a portrait of him and set out in her truck to find him. She stopped at roadside taverns, asking, "Have you seen this man?"
She found Michael at a turkey shoot seven years ago. And that was that.
Michael Chute is 29. He does not read or write. The literacy volunteer has come to call, but Michael has not been able to learn. "He says he blacks out if I try to teach him. He says he can see nothing but darkness."
She read the novel out loud as she wrote it. When there was no money to buy gas for the truck, they stayed home and discussed the Beans.
"He always wanted to hear the stories," she says. "I had never shown them to anyone before, and with Michael, he and I would be talking about the characters like they were real."
She'd been playing with the novel for a few years. Three winters ago, she finished it in a burst of 10-hour days in a borrowed cabin in Vermont. By then she'd had a few short stories published, and had attended a writers' conference or two. She showed the manuscript to a friend, who showed it to his agent.
It is dedicated to the stillborn son she bore three years ago, a catastrophe she attributes to not having the money to pay for proper prenatal care.
"When I finished the novel, I felt like I was making up for that." She bought a gray headstone with the money from the advance. It leans against a wall in the front room.
Her editor wants to know when she will deliver her second novel, but there hasn't been much time for writing lately. The book is the talk of the literary world, and "Good Morning America" has invited her to appear. The phone keeps ringing. Old friends and acquaintances show up at readings. Last month, a state employe who used to help the Chutes apply for fuel assistance money arrived with his own poetry tucked under his arm. He invited the Chutes to dinner. "I don't know for sure," she says, "but I think I'm going to be reading some poems."
This week, two reporters from People magazine showed up at her writing class and she noticed a third strange face in the front row.
"I don't think I've seen you before," said Chute.
"I'm from the Bangor Daily News," said the face.
There is one bookshelf in the front room of the Chute house at Gag Corner. It is half-full and stands against a wall. Chute estimates that she has read about 30 books in her life, mostly things friends recommend.
Someone mentions Willa Cather.
"Oh, huh," Chute says. "She's written quite a few, huh. I should find that in the library. Cather, yeah. I've seen that. Our library has some stuff like that. It's a really tiny library."
One book bigger now.