Poetry, majesty writ extra large

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Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of the forthcoming "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

Katharine HAAKE is the director of the creative writing program at Cal State Northridge and, not incidentally, the niece of the man who served as chief engineer for the construction of Shasta Dam. These two points of reference allow us to fix her masterful novel “That Water, Those Rocks” on the literary landscape. The result is a beguiling blend of fact and fiction, history and memory, a compelling tale that invites us to behold the most intimate moments in the lives of families whose fathers were builders of the biggest dams.

“Because this story is also about the damming up of water, you will read the dams as a metaphor,” declares the nameless woman who is the narrator of the novel, “but you will be wrong.”

Indeed, Haake’s novel is not an exercise in myth-making -- or, perhaps more accurately, it is not only that. When, for example, we first encounter a young woman called Patty, the daughter of a dam builder, she witnesses the gang rape of a 9-year-old girl and is later blinded in an accident at a dam construction site. Both experiences are conjured up in the here and now, but Haake allows us to regard Patty as a mythic figure and a flesh-and-blood human being.


“[N]ow, for the rest of her life, she will be unable to separate her image of that boy’s engorged penis, swathed by the electric blue nylon of his swim trunks,” writes Haake, “from what she knows a normal penis must look like, just prior to the act of love, or after.”

In the same way, Haake ponders the primal elements of the California landscape -- earth and wind, fire and water -- but she insists on confronting us with the mundane and yet disturbing ways in which human beings experience the phenomena of nature. Thus, for example, a family outing cut short by a brush fire prompts a reverie on the meanings and associations that are sparked by the very sight of fire.

“[H]ere in California, fire is such an integral part of our imagination that it is never as if we have not faced it, never not been called to pack our most valued possessions, in a frenzy of choosing, into a single carload, never not stood flailing linked garden hoses from our roofs, ash drifting like snow from above,” she muses. “We are so attached to this image of ourselves that we continue to see ourselves as uncanny partners with our own annihilation.”

Fear of annihilation, real and imagined, is the thread that runs through “That Water, Those Rocks.” Haake’s narrator is a woman whose anxiety over the physical safety of her children prompts her to realize how the lives of her forebears (and everyone’s forebears) were always stalked by danger. Nuclear war, the rape of a girl and a child’s broken tooth all take on a certain moral equivalency: “This is the difference between before you are a parent,” her narrator observes, “and after.”

At its most sublime moments, “That Water, Those Rocks” achieves the poetry and majesty of Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose.” Haake understands what moves human beings to set themselves against nature: “a primal need for power, for big things poured in concrete, for the sheer perverse pleasure of closing off the gap between two canyon walls just because you can conceive it, just because you can.”

But, like Stegner, Haake also sees how men who present themselves as hard and rugged are sometimes secretly frail and vulnerable. Her narrator catches it out of the corner of her eye, as when she describes how her uncle and Patty’s father, both dam builders, used to loosen their ties and drink on the back porch after work: “But there was always something, some frayed edges to the ties or a tightness at the corner of their eyes, something squeezed in the purse of their mouths, that even the gin, in Patty’s father’s case, and the whiskey, in my uncle’s, did not fully relieve.”


Now and then, Haake steps out of her role as storyteller and addresses us, as it were, face to face. “You can make a fiction of your uncle’s suicide,” she writes in a frank aside to the reader. “You can turn his suffering into an embedded clause in someone else’s story. You can ravage everything about his memory that you can think of. You can do all this as many times as you can bear your own duplicity, and then one day you cannot do it anymore.” Mindful of Joan Didion’s quip -- “writers are always selling somebody out” -- Haake refuses to do so.

Indeed, what makes Haake’s book so remarkable is her utter candor as a writer. “If you take the idea of a story, you never can count on someone like Patty,” Haake reveals in one thrilling, almost shattering aside. “If I called her on the telephone right now, she’d change everything by telling me about some new laser treatment that, little by little, is restoring her sight. She’d say, his trunks weren’t blue, they were cardinal red.” In that sense, “That Water, Those Rocks” is like a finely made watch with a transparent case that allows us to look inside and admire not only the beautiful ornamentation but the way it all works.