Drive down any country road and you will see them, the forlorn houses stuck in the middle of nowhere, apparently forgotten by all but those who live in them. And who exactly are these people? And why are they here? Surely the questions have occurred to all of us who have traversed the heartland, but in an age when the pedal is always to the metal, it takes something special to make us stop for answers. “Thief of Dreams” is something special.
It lures us off the two-lane blacktop and up a North Carolina hill and into the lives that are going on in that ugly purple trailer behind the house where the postmaster lives. Madeline Tally is his daughter, and she has come back to live in the trailer with her 13-year-old son, James, and without the husband she can neither understand nor tame. Edward Tally is up in Pittsburgh, working construction, living above the bar where he drinks, and trying to forget his loneliness in the arms of a good-time girl.
A family is coming apart here, and not only are the people in it unable to deal with the tragedy that is upon them, they can barely bring themselves to speak about it. How rare to find fictional characters so inarticulate about their emotions in a time when literature, film and television seem bent on convincing us that anyone worth his neuroses is constantly babbling about the forces that shape him, his relationships, his stock portfolio, even his bathroom habits.
Perhaps “Thief of Dreams” is spared such claptrap because it is set in 1948, long before self-absorption became a way of life. More likely, though, the book’s author, John Yount, is simply wise enough to understand that there always have been, and always will be, multitudes struggling with thoughts and feelings they can’t express.
This internal wrestling match starts early, a fact that James Tally is coming to grips with as he and his mother begin their new life on old ground. Poor James, Yount writes, “understood almost everything that was in the air, even if some of what he knew, he kept in that sad, sure, nonverbal chamber of the heart where everyone keeps a great deal of what they know. He was worried about his own culpability in all this trouble, and he had other worries too, not necessarily separate, about whether he had, or would ever be able to acquire, enough sense, strength and bravery to get along in the world.” What James has yet to discover is that his mother and father are afflicted by many of the same doubts.
The story of how James comes of age, and how Madeline and Edward manage to find their way through the haze of emotion and misunderstanding, is by turns harsh and funny, tense and heartbreaking. If the wind is at his back, this combination may be enough to lift Yount from his perplexing status as a hidden treasure. He is as gifted as anyone working at the writer’s trade, though you wouldn’t know it from the public silence that greeted his four previous novels.
Two of them, “Wolf at the Door” and “The Trapper’s Last Shot,” seemingly defy getting into even the best used-book stores. “Hardcastle,” the tale of coal miners and communists in Depression-era West Virgina, has a secret second life as a paperback. The same goes for the wry, delightful “Toots in Solitude,” which I once saw lying on a studio executive’s desk at Columbia because Glenn Close cottoned to its loopy premise: A country singer escapes her coke-dealing boyfriend with the aid of a disfigured war hero who lives in a tree house. So far, alas, no movie.
But the wait becomes infinitely more bearable now that “Thief of Dreams” is on my bookshelf, and judging by the way he wrote it, Yount can wait too. He has not catered to Hollywood; rather, he has told a story that is so internal, so understated that one can’t help applauding his integrity--perhaps stubbornness is a better word--in creating a novel that is meant to be a novel and not a film treatment.
Thus unencumbered, Yount has created a family of remarkable complexity, pride and, ultimately, heart. Take Madeline Tally, who, separated from her husband and contemplating divorce in an age when it is not just another entree on life’s menu, shares the bed of a widowed lawyer two years her junior. The surge of freedom she feels is frighteningly delicious. Edward’s freedom, on the other hand, is a curse. The tart he has taken up with can’t cook a lick and she’s borderline psychotic in the sack.
And then there is James, who is more confused than ever when his father high-tails it home and his mother responds by treating the old boy like a fly on her picnic lunch.
It is more than James can handle, particularly after he has been whipped by the school bully and seen his best friend--the sweet, noble, white-trash Lester Buck--suffer an even more fearful beating while trying to save him. His head in a whirl, James lights out for the mountains, heedless of the cold and the danger and the people who love him in spite of their own failings. “I need to be off by myself,” he writes on a scrap of paper before running away. It is precisely that need that is the problem with all the Tallys, and Madeline and Edward finally realize it as the search for their only child begins.
Of the trauma is wisdom born. “Everyone has deep desires and strong yearnings of the heart,” Madeline decides. “The important thing was to know which were to be acted upon and which were to be confined to the realm of dreams.” The notion is determinedly old-fashioned, but there is no denying its virtue.
So, too, the novel that is built upon the notion--old-fashioned and virtuous and, oh yes, a triumph for John Yount.