Vanishing way of life is writer Chute's Maine passion

February 17, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

C You can say you don't like her novels, or that she gets too passionate for her own good. In fact, Carolyn Chute says she's gotten used to being criticized for her three quirky novels about working-class Maine -- "after 20 or so reviews, your book is totally bruised."

But don't make fun of the people she writes about. That makes Carolyn Chute mad.

The Carolyn Chute who will read tonight at 8 at Goucher College's Haebler Chapel is an exception in the current American literary environment, in which writers are expected to write dispassionately or ironically about their subjects. She believes passionately in the people she grew up with, writes about and still lives around.

Take her response to a recent New York Times review of her

third and most recent novel, "Merry Men." "The reviewer in effect asked at the end of her review, 'How can anybody write three books about these people?' " Ms. Chute, 46, recounts with some heat over the phone from her home in southwestern Maine. "That sounds kind of Nazi-ish -- saying whole masses of working-class people are not even worth literature."

"Nazi-ish" may sound overstated, but you can't separate Ms. Chute from her subjects -- due in part to the fact that before she began writing in the 1980s, she worked a number of low-wage, menial jobs. In her first two novels, "The Beans of Egypt, Maine," and "Letourneau's Used Auto Parts," she chronicled the state's working-class poor with humor, even affection.

But now many of the working-class poor are no longer working, due to the state's devastating economic downturn of the past decade. While vacationers flock to the state, mills and factories are closing, leaving little work for the blue collars, save $4-an-hour service jobs.

That's why "Merry Men," a sprawling, 695-page epic covering three decades of contemporary life in rural Maine, is so heartfelt, so angry (its dedication reads: "Please let me honor here all the farmers who still work the land themselves, who are not agribusinessmen or agribusinesswomen, but farmers, who know family and community interdependence"). Now she feels mostly fear, even despair, that a way of life will be gone.

"Circumstances and events have changed, and so her writing has as well," observes Madison Smartt Bell, writer-in-residence at Goucher College, who has known Ms. Chute for several years (and who contributed a laudatory blurb to "Merry Men"). "Times have gotten a lot worse for her people in the past 10 years. What had been bearable is no longer that way."

"Maine is the second-poorest state in the union," Ms. Chute says with a sigh. "When you have a lot of tourism, it's a sure sign that you've become a Third World nation."

Mr. Bell, among others, has likened Ms. Chute's novels about Maine to Faulkner's works about Mississippi. That comparison might flatter most writers, but Ms. Chute doesn't like it -- and not for literary reasons, either.

"Faulkner -- that would bother me," she muses. "He was such an arrogant person and he had a humor, a chuckle, that was a kind of distance from what he wrote."

It has also been suggested that her works, in their evoking the lives of working rural Americans, could be linked to those of John Steinbeck.

Her voice brightens noticeably. "I like that better," she says quickly. "John Steinbeck seemed to write from a non-self-conscious kind of way. And anybody that rides around with a big poodle was not self-conscious, anyway."

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