There's a spiritual majesty to Jeffrey Lent's work, a preoccupation with matters of faith and grace that seems most fulfilled when he applies his formidable gifts to stories entangled in some way with our defining national trauma, the Civil War. He's written several fine novels with different settings, but "A Slant of Light," which chronicles the agonized aftermath of a Union veteran's return to the Finger Lakes region of New York, is his best since his first, "In the Fall," which examined the poisonous legacy of slavery. Like that breathtaking debut, this new book is rooted in the American landscape and propelled by the question of our moral responsibility in the face of evil. "A Slant of Light" surpasses its predecessor, however, in the complexity of the intimate and social relationships it plumbs and the power of its vision of the natural world.
In the stark, violent opening scene, Malcolm Hopeton confronts a hired hand who plundered his farm and slept with his wife while he was away. In the process of killing his employee, Malcolm accidentally kills his wife and injures a 15-year-old helper named Harlan Davis. August Swartout, a widowed neighbor, takes the boy to recuperate on his farm and tries to protect him from the intrusive interrogation that quickly follows.
Enoch Stone, a powerful elder in the evangelical sect that founded the town of Jerusalem, appoints himself Malcolm’s attorney and intends to save his unwilling client from hanging through “Christian intervention,” which involves depicting Malcolm as goaded beyond endurance by a corrupt, faithless wife. But young Harlan angrily rejects this portrait of the woman, and it’s belied by the history that unfolds while guilt-stricken Malcolm awaits trial.
Lent has always been as deft with plot as any thriller author, and he expertly spins out a half-dozen narrative strands that weave into a richly textured tapestry of a community no longer unified by shared values. August, although raised and happily married in the gentle faith preached by the evangelicals’ deceased leader, has since his wife’s death distanced himself from the religion as practiced by censorious patriarchs such as Enoch. The hysterical condemnation of Malcolm’s wife as “besmirched” hints at unsavory secrets kept in Jerusalem’s pious homes.
Although never a member of the sect, Malcolm had his own unyielding personal creed: “It was up to him to do his share and then some.” That idealism had sent him to war against slavery. He stayed with the army even after he was wounded because he took it as his direct obligation “to drain the evil out of this land.”
But that idealism can’t shield Malcolm from the realization that he failed his wife long before accidentally taking her life. He blames himself for abandoning her to an abusive man while he was at war. Harlan blames himself for staying on the farm but being unable to protect her. “Not a one of us can fix all that’s wrong in the world,” August reassures the boy. His measured steadfastness, a marked contrast to Malcolm’s self-flagellation and Enoch’s sanctimony, might be cloying were it not for his charming obtuseness about more personal matters. He’s human, not a saint.
Living and working to the rhythms of the land and the seasons, Lent’s characters are immersed in an order that may or may not be divine (opinions among them differ), but surely offers wounded humanity the possibility of redemption. The satisfactions of work well done and kindness freely offered, he suggests, bring us in harmony with nature, while the malevolence of men leads to stripped pastures and ravaged orchards. The evangelical members of this community call the physical world “the human form of Time,” a way station on our passage toward eternity. Lent respects this view but counters with an embrace of each moment we live here and now, enfolded in the fabric of creation.
Like several of Lent’s previous novels, “A Slant of Light” doesn’t so much end as pause. These people have farther to go in their journeys. As always, Lent traces their progress with poignancy and tenderness in some of the most magnificent prose being written today.
Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and reviews books frequently for the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
A SLANT OF LIGHT
By Jeffrey Lent
Bloomsbury. 357 pp. $27
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