'My Father's War': Solid stories from the heartland


September 11, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"My Father's War," by Barton Sutter, 258 pages, Viking Penguin, New York, N.Y., $19.95.

THESE STORIES in Barton Sutter's "My Father's War" are four-square and solid and as resonant with memory as an old family home built by a country carpenter on the edge of a Minnesota lake.

They're lived in. They have the feeling of being told by an old friend or a brother or an uncle or your father, then being shaped into stories by the author.

The American heartland today abounds with these stories. Hundreds of people write them and they appear in the journals where Sutter's work is published: The Iowa Review, Crazyhorse and North American Review.

They have honorable ancestors in Hamlin Garland's Middle Border, Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, Sherwood Anderson's Ohio and Ernest Hemingway's upper Michigan.

Barton Sutter's stories reach a high level of competence, as do many of these new writers of the Midwest and the Great Plains, the Lake Country, the Rockies and the Northwest. They're like those homes built on the plains by artful craftsman, but few stories from this new generation of journeymen are built with the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie houses, or Hemingway's Nick Adams stories.

Sutter's "Happiness" recalls Hemingway's "Big Two-hearted River," just as Hemingway recalls Stephen Crane or Mark Twain. But where Hemingway equaled or transcended his antecedents, Sutter's reach is not quite as long. Sutter leaves in the things Hemingway took out; he fills the empty spaces where the echoes gather in Hemingway's stories.

In "Happiness," three young men canoe across a lake on the Minnesota border into Canada on a camping trip during the Thanksgiving break. Sutter's stories here are almost always told by the young guy who left his small town to go to college.

A snow storm comes up and they have to paddle across the lake through 4-foot swells and breakers: "The trip on which we almost drowned . . ." They make it, dry out and warm up, stop at a clean, well-lighted small-town lunchroom and talk about life and death on the way home.

In a kind of coda the narrator, now thirtysomething, his two friends dead, and no one to verify his memories, thinks back and realizes "that I was as happy then, right there, as I would ever be."

And if it's not "Two-Hearted River," "Happiness" is a very fine and moving story.

Snow and death move through these stories in counterpoint like themes in a fugue.

"You Ain't Dead Yet" is about a young man who is spending summer digging graves before going off to school. It's September and growing cold and snow is in the air.

As young Mark works with two older men to exhume a coffin, he hears at the heart of their silence the deep, dull bass beat of death. It turns out to be a tractor throbbing in a distant field.

"That was a good one, he thought, confusing death with a John Deere."

He's had bad dreams in which his dead mother appears, but he learns one of the older men, tough and strong, has bad dreams, too. Older mentors pop up in these stories like infiltrators from Robert Bly's New Age mythology. (Sutter, like Bly, lives in Minnesota.)

In "Happiness," the snow is threatening (of death by drowning), but ultimately exhilarating and liberating.

Snow falls throughout the long night of the title story, "My Father's War." It is the blanketing, beautifying, purifying snow of James Joyce's great, great story "The Dead." There is even a passage that overtly refers to the incomparable ending of Joyce's tale.

"I stand at the window awhile, watching the snow swirl and drift in long, thin streamers across the yard and down the street, filling in valleys and hollows, building on cars, shrouding the bushes and trees."

Three sons listen to their aging, forgetful father tell them for the first time of his part in the war in the Pacific. The two older sons had been formed and informed by resistance to the Vietnam war. The father, deeply religious and gentle, had done his duty, disturbed and uneasy, but finding a higher good in the war against Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan.

"My Father's War" is a parable of bonding with a dying father, a night-time ritual reminiscent of Bly, perhaps, in its themes of redemption and healing. It's a good story by an honest craftsman who gives his readers full measure.

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