Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
Pat Conroy prefaces Eric Morris’s first novel by placing him in a pantheon of southern writers whose theme is darkness: Cormac McCarthy, Ron Rush, and Flannery O’Connor. One could be “tripped up” by arguing such. It’s equally likely that Morris’s first novel could be placed in a larger context: any fictional piece that uses a river as an integral part of its mythology as does T. S. Eliot’s referencing the Mississippi as a great brown god. Untamed and intractable, Eliot’s narrator speaks in Section I of “The Dry Salvages,” “…implacable…destroyer, reminder / Of what men choose to forget.”
The river in Morris’s first novel is the Savannah River, which one might note from happenstance alone becomes an adult from the nursery rivers of the Chattooga and Tugaloo, the former achieving notoriety in James Dickey’s Deliverance. From its early creation, then, the Savannah marks the border between western South Carolina and eastern Georgia, rising some miles above Augusta before flowing largely unimpeded southeast to Savannah where it joins the heavy groaners of the Atlantic.
Thomas Verdery and William Rhind are old friends whose lives have become existentially frayed. Verdery has been a theater teacher in a New England prep school. The novel’s exposition alludes to an indiscretion with a student leading to a confrontation with the school’s headmaster. And as we learn, Verdery’s punch to the schoolmaster’s mouth leads to the end of a teaching career. He escapes, leaving behind a wife he loved and who loved him, driving from Connecticut to Augusta, home and his place of origin.
Rhind is also abandoned, wife and daughter gone. He’s worked as a cameraman for a local Augusta television station. And it’s likely his drinking has broken him.
The two are joined on this six-day trip by Dan Rhind, the young Rhind’s father; at night the three camp on sandbars. This third member to the group also owns what Conroy calls “a mare’s nest of regret.”
The existential point is that both men have arrived at a desperate point in their lives. They have an existence – still at this point in time – but their individual essences, so to speak, their defined natures, have become undefined. That’s an argument that suggests the book is limited by philosophy’s essence/existence composite. The plot, I would argue, is predicated on such a notion. Conroy suggests as much when he writes in his preface that both men are undertaking this impetuous journey to capture something that had become lost in their lives from suffering too many wrong turns: “The trip holds the promise of mystery, a connection to the memory of innocence, a time-out from the burden of bad choices, and a prayer for one’s own soul.”
My sense is that Conroy’s endorsement promises a novel very rich in a metaphysical landscape, the primary referent “the promise of mystery, a connection to the memory of innocence . . . the burden of bad choices, and a prayer for one’s own soul.”
Perhaps so; but my sense also is that such would require a rendering with a much more knowing precision than one finds in this first novel. The curiosity is whether the two men are on the cusp of an existential madness vectoring into nihilism or simple drunkenness, too much beer and gin.
So where to begin?
With the narrator’s omniscience, or limited omniscience, and the necessary distinction between Eric Morris, author, and his novel’s narrator, who, although not a principle character in the novel, is always present and thus as much a presence as those directly involved in the action.
Point being: The narrator’s own persona, a mask or facade, is an evident personality in the novel inasmuch as it’s the narrator’s voice, thoughts and feelings forming the novel’s substance, brooding as it were.
Morris’s novel is not Jamesian but The Master did have something to say about narrative and what it means for a novel to be artistic. James never deprecates the exactness of detail since a good novel owes its clear outline to such exactness. It’s description of course, and dialogue, and incident, and close texture, and interesting.
A novel becomes uninteresting, or for James “bad,” when the narrator’s thinking seems unable to “divine” his own consciousness.
In Chapter One, for example, Verdery has completed his car trip from Connecticut to Augusta, still holding “the remnant inertia of the road in his blood and bones.” At that moment, the phrasing is not a shallow common place and is more than sufficient to the story’s development. In the same paragraph, however, the narrator adds that Verdery had made “the thousand miles, stopping only to gas up and once more, along a ridge of the Shenandoah Valley to watch the sun go low.”
The problem then:
There’s Verdery the aspirant returning to Augusta narrated with a vivid sense of reality; the passage concludes, however, in this fashion: “. . .to watch the sun go low, it declining vermilion, then bruising to lavender, then slipping away into the earth’s upspilling lilac dust.”
I’m not suggesting here that the narrator is forbidden to walk on the grass, as James notes again in his “Art of Fiction,” or to touch the flowers. It’s even fine to take the dog into the public gardens after dark. But it takes a strenuous force on the narrator’s part not to depart into mysticism without reason. There’s Verdery, the character and the novel’s subject, and then there’s the narrator who owns the needle and the thread. One is idea and the other is form. We lose our sense of the story if the needle is not truly threaded, or when the narrative fails in its attempt which is supposed to be less the narrator’s moral consciousness and more the development of Verdery’s moral consciousness.
There’s a dust jacket blurb that argues that Jacob Jump is half hallucinatory prose poem and half mythic journey. Hallucinatory presumes, however, that the perception of objects or events distorts a compelling sense of reality, the result of a medical disorder. The experience – if I remember my Carlos Castaneda properly – is a kind of gustatory visual experience not existing outside the mind.
Language is a force, of course, and like the Savannah River, is a force that flows or is sucked along. There’s debris and detritus, of course. Here’s the first paragraph in Chapter Two:
Verdery breathed deep into his lungs the wet, solemn air, remembering the taste of it. On the levee the air changed into the color of night, and a deep separate blue hung like water smoke. At the old drawbridge he searched the far shore lights. There a houseboat had become more a lean-to, with a vapor streetlamp for a porch light. Above that on the bank and into the trees more dim porchlights, where squatters were now community, and their nightlights peeked softened, gauzed in the summer haze. Across, a little village named Hamburg once lived, and from Hamburg to Charleston the first passenger rail line in America was built. In 1814 Henry Shulz dreamed his Hamburg would rival Augusta. He left Germany and boated an ocean and built a bridge across the Savannah and a decent wharf, to secure an inland port to trade cotton and tobacco, running round-trip steamboats to Charleston, ten days’ travel. But the Augustans, and more than that, the river would kill the dream, and when he died they buried him in the Carolina sand with his back to Georgia, as he asked. The floods and freshets washed Hamburg away, and now a few frame houses survived and the freight trains only sounded as they passed making restively for Augusta (emphasis added).
At the passage’s beginning the center of interest is Verdery’s consciousness and there’s a delightful lingering spirit to the language. What follows, however, does not pass for either an apologetic or gravity; even the tone changes and what was interesting becomes uninteresting. The “cut-to” historical minutiae offers no increase in revelation.
Thus this editorial comment needs to be made. I’m reminded of the story of North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe of Look Homeward, Angel, fame. There’s the anecdote describing how Wolfe wrote his manuscripts on legal-sized notebook paper – a feverished scrawl, 10,000 words or so per day. He would “haul” the lengthy manuscript to Max Perkins, who would perform “due” surgery, disciplining what was undisciplined. Wolfe “suffered” during these editorial moments but the “editorial” paring knife used by Perkins peeled the surplus skin. What was left became the novel.
In the course of their river journey, Verdery and Rhind mark their “progress” via a series of markers, mileposts and signs on creosote posts set into the water. In Chapter Seven, they make mile one eighty at Hungry Swamp Lodge, one seventy at Eagle Point, and one sixty the last marker “they would remember that day.”
Assuming for a moment that the novel’s concern is with the character’s existential crisis, and a deep questioning about the unsettled state of their very being, merely to show the river’s mileage is one thing but to think of those signs on creosote posts as a controlling metaphor would be self-consciously to connect the sign with what it references. My sense is that it’s implied in the novel but fails to become an element in the narrator’s “figuring.”
When, for example, the voyagers approach mile one sixty-two they make the Shell Bluffs, “rising fifty feet on the Georgia side, where the ancient clay held fast the remnant of giant oysters, where in pre-history the ocean swam above them.”
What follows then is a paragraph-long digression: “There too de Soto had been half a century before, with the six hundred men an horses, possessed with the vision of gold–and now at the cliffs, avaricious of the pearls too.”
A pair of notions, then:
The Hernando de Soto Trail from Tampa north with roughly 570 to 620 men and women was in 1539; a “half a century” before strains credibility.
The second notion concerns time with the suggestion that as the mile posts are distinguished one after another, combined with the images of a primal pre-history, existentially the question of time and free will emerge especially in relation to duration and consciousness. I’m not suggesting that the more introspective Verdery pull from his camping gear a well-thumbed version of Bergson’s doctoral thesis, but again if the narrative thread portrays existential crisis, those moments in which a character questions the foundations of his life, its meaning, purpose, and value, then the liquid motion of consciousness, supported by the liquid motion of the river, combines as the means by which a character looks at his existence from an aesthetic point of view. We know that such mediation and sublimation – at least in the collective view of religion – is a dark night of the soul.
We know, too, that the narrator is aware of his characters’ existential fraying and that their lives have become psychologically pathological. We know more broadly that such fraying owns broad cultural contexts, including literary examples. We know the narrator intends the novel’s structure to be influenced by myth, concepts of time, and space.
To convey such, however, narrative language must embrace all of the symbolic processes that take the narrative across the bridge from reality itself to myth. Without such, the channels that make up the chapters of this first novel are shallow whereas the channels that make up the force of the Savannah River are not only deep but dark. This is a novel that could have been very good; it promises much but falls short of real conviction.