Another time, another place

James Sallis is the author, most recently, of "Salt River."

GENE WOLFE, himself squarely among our great writers, once said that great writers don't simply do something better than others, they do something that no one else can do at all.

I look at this shelf of books beside my desk and almost expect the shelf, the floor, the foundation, perhaps even the fundament of Earth itself, to give beneath the weight of what is there: so many lives, so much history and anticipation, so many foreign and familiar worlds caught up in there. No, not caught -- suspended. Held lovingly. And truth to tell, I might just as well expect shelf, room and house to rise into the air, with these books so like clouds or bolls of cottony wind. For it's lightness, not weight, that Arkansas novelist Donald Harington catches up in his nets: the fragility of our lives, the fine lines we forever dodge between, the joy that breaks from our sorrow.

There are 13 of those books on the shelf, 13 Donald Haringtons, reissued by the Toby Press and now capped by a new novel, "Farther Along."

First, though, a disclaimer. I am a tremendous admirer of Harington's work, a fact you might well surmise from the cover of "Farther Along," whereupon squats a quote from one of my columns for the Boston Globe: "Harington's books are of a piece -- the quirkiest, most original body of work in contemporary U.S. letters." For many years now, I've eagerly read Harington, written about him, passed his books along, done everything but collar strangers on the street to tell them about him. "The Choiring of the Trees" is, quite simply, one of the finest novels I've ever read. "With," a personal favorite, begins with a child's sexual abduction, only to become one of the most world-embracing, life-affirming books I know.

Harington has worked at a remove both aesthetically and geographically from the literary establishment, in the nature of true genius giving little regard to mainstream, academic or commercial concerns, quietly pursuing his personal vision of an America singing through its many wounds. So when I collar that stranger on the street, when I bring up Harington's name even among avid readers, chances are there's little recognition. He is, as fellow novelist Fred Chappell has called him, "an undiscovered continent." Sadly -- for us all.

It's difficult to describe what sets Harington's work apart. Superficial aspects come easily to mind: rural Ozark setting, eccentric characters, conflation of history and present lives, fanciful though forever demotic language, careening points of view, an abundant sense of spiritual presence. But the work seems finally in some manner different at heart, as though it had issued from another time, another place. Harington is hooked into the deepest traditions of storytelling, dipping his buckets directly into the well it all comes from, pursuing a literature dedicated not to documentation or self-expression, but to fascination, to lifting us out of ourselves and the dailiness of our lives -- to making our world again wondrous and large.

In "Farther Along," for instance, we have a man leaving city and career behind to live in a cave like the prehistoric Ozark bluff dwellers, complete with deerskin robe and atlatl; a woman who may or not be a woman of the same name who died long ago; a mummified man in a glass case; another whose fingers each have lives, opinions and voices of their own; and, in the middle chapters, a narrator that may be either a ghost or an internal voice -- but that we suspect is the spirit of place often evoked in Harington's work.

Add unheralded shifts in point of view, long back stories, tasty curlicues of digression and you have something quite aside from a quick, serviceable read. Harington's reach is long; he refuses to simplify, wants to include, in every sentence, every fragment of dialogue, every paragraph and anecdote, as much of the world's marvelous complexity and abundance as possible. Yet he does not challenge his readers so much as repeatedly invite them to sit a spell and listen along with him.

"I lived for almost two months before the first wave of excruciating loneliness attacked me. . . . The imagined past is always more lost and irreplaceable than the real past. And I had no future. All I had was now, and now was a long, unchanging, lonely moment. If, as someone said, the moment Now exhales the past and inhales the future, then I had chronic emphysema. A winding path led to my place among the rocks, a cave which was a dead end, but I had neither the path nor the cave but the edge of both."

"Farther Along" begins in the first person, ends in multiple points of view and, for its long middle passage, surges into the second person. And not just plain old garden-variety second person, but second person voiced by that spirit, who is relating, to a woman who has just lost her husband, her own story while adding its thoughts: "Half-waking, you rolled and dropped a gentle hand down on the other pillow, and woke fully to find him not there. You listened for the sound of the axe, his chopping, but heard only the piping of the pre-dawn birds and the quickening of your heart."

Harington's narratives are full of such lurches, for us and for his characters. He never allows us to become too comfortable. Nor does he allow us to forget that it's all about stories: those we inherit, those told to us, those we tell ourselves to be able to go on. A writer with every bit of the playfulness and intelligence of Nabokov, he is also one whose heart and expansive humanity rivals that of Chekhov -- a writer, that is, who is dearly in love with his people, his place, his world, his work.

I hesitate, in casting about for central themes, to adopt the simplistics that Harington himself abjures, but just as it seems to me that American literature finds its overarching theme in the push-pull of individual and society, frontier and city, so it seems that Harington again and again writes about a man or woman who sails out from civilization aiming for solitude and unwittingly discovers community.

I do not hesitate, though, to call "Farther Along" a great novel. It joins "The Cherry Pit," "Lightning Bug," "The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks," "With" and the others on my shelf: more stories than you can ever absorb, more of the world than any of us will ever know. But it is a good world that has in it a publisher like the Toby Press. And it is a far better world for having Donald Harington in it.

Sit with him a spell -- a long spell. And listen. *

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