Sad Sacks, Big Hearts

 

In Stephanie Doyon's new novel, greatness wears a shabby cloak

 

Recent Releases

Stuffed to the Gills
Linda Greenlaw "83 and Martha Greenlaw
Hyperion (2005)
Bestselling author and fisherman Greenlaw joins with her mother to reveal what Maine fishing families eat onshore. Along with anecdotes about island life, the first and only woman swordfish boat captain shares some 75 recipes, including Penobscot Bay Clam Dip and Point Lookout Lobster Salad.


Orientations: Space/Time/Image/Word. Word & Image Interactions 5.
Véronique Plesch (art), co-editor and contributor
Rachel Tobie "04, designer
Rodopi (2005)
Based on papers presented at the conference of the International Association of Word and Image Studies (IAWIS/AERTI) held in 2002 in Hamburg, the 22 essays in this volume cover an array of intermedial relations and a great variety of media, from medieval architecture to interactive digital art. The contributions come from scholars from Europe, the United States, and South America.


%book%left% Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing
Debra Spark (English)
University of Michigan Press (2005)
When she was only 23, Debra Spark edited the bestselling anthology 20 Under 30, which introduced readers to some of today"s best writers. Almost 20 years later, Spark brings this same keen, critical eye to Curious Attractions, discussing a broad range of authors from multiple genres and generations. A collection of essays in the belles-lettres tradition, Curious Attractions offers lively and instructive discussions of craft flavored with autobiographical reflections and commentary on world events.


It"s Always a Good Day for Crabbing
Karin Whiting Burgess "83
Flat Hammock Press (2005)
Burgess"s first children"s book, inspired by her observations of children (including her own) catching and releasing crabs on the Connecticut shore. The story of one young crabber"s adventure is told in rhyme and geared to children 2 to 5. Illustrations are by Deborah McLaren.


The Hickory Staff: Book 1 of the Eldarn Sequence

Robert Scott "90 and Jay Gordon
Victor Gollancz and Orion Publishing Group (2005)
This first novel follows the adventures of assistant bank manager Steven Taylor, who finds a 135-year-old safe deposit box in his Colorado bank. Taylor opens the box and enters a portal to the mysterious world of Eldarn, a magical place ruled by an oppressive dictator.


Upcoming
Garry Mitchell (art)
ICON Contemporary Art, Brunswick, Maine
(Sept. 24-Oct. 22, 2005)
This one-man show features 15 of abstract painter Garry Mitchell"s most recent efforts. The canvases seem full of shapes edging into figures, becoming pieces of letters, parts of the underwater world, or even an aspect of memory, elusive but still there. Mitchell"s paintings are about atmosphere and space, rich hues and surfaces that "tell the story— (as Mitchell explains) of their own making.
45%#At age 10, Robert J. Cutler already stands out in Cedar Hole, a sad-sack little burg drenched by constant rain and parched by job drought, a place where the railroad called it quits and the only thing growing is grass. Robert is a courteous, ambitious boy admired by adults for his optimism about the town's future"which makes him the perfect antagonist to his classmate Francis Pinkham, a kid pummeled by nine wacko older sisters and shunted to bed in a pantry smelling of vinegar and the potato sack that earns him his nickname, Spud.

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If everybody in Cedar Hole were like Delia Pratt, the children's teacher, nobody in town would have a prayer. In Delia's eyes, all the kids except Robert appear absent, in a stupor, miserable, bumbling, slogging. Was Charles Dickens ever so hard on his characters in a first chapter as Stephanie Doyon '93 is on hers?

Some chapters chronicle the growing-up and initiation into life of two boys who couldn't be more dissimilar; many episodes involve hapless adults like Delia, whose couplings with the local police officer are held at the town dump. Francis's sisters pop in and out like monsters in a house of horrors. At one point they cow him into playing "Pinkham Baseball," the antithesis of Tom Sawyer conning a bunch of boys into whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence. It's a shameful chapter in Francis's life when he joins his sisters' night of revenge on an unfair world. The novel covers some 25 years and the family, class, and social relationships of a score of townsfolk facing their own growing pains"or the lack of them.

Feckless fathers and washout mothers, small infidelities and large jealousies, the consequences of a high school pregnancy, childhood friends, mentors, and mainstays drifting apart: Cedar Hole is a lifelong obstacle course, so any accomplishment is treasured. The first time young Francis takes the controls of Mr. Mullen's Toro lawnmower, "the exhilarating strangeness of vibration buzzing right down to his marrow . . . he felt visible. Justified." According to sweet old Mr. Mullen, he might become "the greatest lawn mower in all of Cedar Hole."

Robert and Francis go head to head at the Lawn Rodeo, the town's major summer bash featuring three cornball events that require speed and skill with a lawnmower. But even the merriest moments in Cedar Hole hit the funny bone. When a mishap fells one of the five finalists in a preliminary heat, the judge calmly raises three fingers and announces, "one of our contestants has lost three toes," adding that if five volunteers would help search for them in the high grass "it would be greatly appreciated."

Not every eccentricity in Cedar Hole is sported with in this exuberant, darkly comic novel, Doyon's first after her career as a ghostwriter of books for teenagers. The girl Francis marries carefully slices into envelopes that contain checks coming in from their fledgling business, as if tearing them open would rip the couple's hopes for a more prosperous life. One poignant detail says worlds.

The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole lines up behind Winesburg, Ohio and Main Street, classics that portray small-town America as stunted and joyless, but Twain-like horseplay is here, too. So are the stories of commonplace life that flowered in 19th-century local color and realistic fiction, like The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells's novel about the rags-to-riches Vermont paint merchant who has the conscience to admit to shabby practices. The small town has gotten a fresh face in contemporary fiction by, among others, Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo, Doyon's creative writing teacher at the College. A Maine native, Doyon nails Cedar Hole's state of mind but avoids locating it geographically.

Since nobody in the town is going to make any Who's Who, the story nudges the reader to think about a couple of heavyweight questions: what constitutes "greatness," and who is "the greatest man in Cedar Hole"?

Among others, there's Robert, who passes along his faith in the town even when choices are limited in large part by the givens of parents, economic class, and work opportunities. His daughter, learning to blow soap bubbles, sees "a world of translucent wonder, shimmering and expanding in a fluid whirl." Hope for better days being as easily shattered as those bubbles, Robert the optimist might take the greatest-man title.

And there's Francis Pinkham, the kid whose sisters' brutishness causes him to ink his name on his girlfriend's palm because he always puts SPUD on his belongings to keep them from being stolen. Isn't making right choices"choices that transform a boy with three strikes on him into a hard-working husband and father such as any decent man might hope to be"pretty great?

Fiction this wise, funny, and true shows us how we might live our lives.