Chute's 'Merry Men' is bleak but vivid

February 17, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

One day, Carolyn Chute will write a novel that will be discussed on its own merits. No mention of her unlikely best-selling debut, "The Beans of Egypt, Maine." No need to remind readers that she was a high school dropout, married to an illiterate man and all too familiar with the impoverished Maine landscape she documented.

One day, but not yet. With the publication of "Merry Men," a 695-page epic, Ms. Chute's life is still inextricably linked with her art. This fiercely ambitious novel should change that.

"Merry Men" returns readers to Egypt, a fictional town in southwestern Maine, a place so bleak that a hardscrabble life would be a step up for most families there. Yet the poor characters are richly drawn, which is more than one can say for the rich in this novel.

At the lower end of Egypt's socio-economic ladder, the tiniest details are vivid. Consider Moody's Variety & Lunch, where the rocking chairs are painted in "wild colors . . . Colors like Purple Ecstasy, Fandango, Canary, Blue Moon, Hawaiian Sunset, and Spring Beauty." Or Denise's Diner, where someone orders "a pepperburger and coffee with a tweak of milk," and an offer of a free dessert provokes a debate on the respective merits of cupcakes and cookies.

The rich are set off with generic detail that is less illuminating than an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Glasses of white wine, therapists, pesto, a private plane -- it's what one would expect if Danielle Steel were writing about the Beans.

It seems likely that Ms. Chute is bored by the well-to-do, even those of her own creation. (The polemical dedication honors "all the farmers who still work the land themselves" and their offspring "herded into welfare lines, prisons, or the slavery of Big Business.") In this, "Merry Men" reminded me of "Tar Baby," in which Toni Morrison attempted to imagine the lives of rich white people. In "Merry Men," Gwen, the doctor's daughter, exists only because Lloyd, the town gravedigger and Robin Hood, needs a foil. It's a shame, because Gwen serves to make Lloyd less interesting.

Before Lloyd grows up and begins redistributing the town's wealth, he's a fat little boy who writes poems, which he signs "Lloyd S. Barrington, 8 3/4 ." The poems are, of course, sweetly misspelled. The effect could have been too precious, almost cloying, but Lloyd's poems, much like Ms. Chute's writing, are achingly sincere. Both have the paradoxical quality of seeming to be polished into rawness.

A meditation on "Ladies," inspired by his father's sexual adventures, begins: "Ladies give peepil nice pies. Then you give them a pickl." It ends on a simple, rapturous note: "Ladies, ladies, ladies!"

A Maine native, young Lloyd also rejects the Democrats, writing: "Democrats are stupid./Democrats want to spent. republcans never spentd. They save." He will come to change his mind about this, for "Merry Men" is as political as its dedication indicates, although slightly more subtle.

By the early 1990s, in a chapter called "Triumph of the Beast," Part 12 reads in its entirety: "In Portland, Maine, the Bureau of Manpower Affairs puts out notice of a machinist's job at a local company. Two thousand, two hundred applicants show up."

"Merry Men" spans four decades, and some of the early parts are slow going. I would have been content to read just the final half, set in the 1990s and called "Recent Time." For it is this time that brings us Anneka DiBias.

Anneka DiBias is like Ms. Chute's prose. Appealing, although not conventionally pretty. Solidly herself and unapologetic about it. As a teen-ager, she writes furious letters to politicians, stages protests and marries a virtually deaf alcoholic. She seems indestructible.

But even Anneka, for all her life force, cannot beat the overwhelming odds against her. Her baby dies in childbirth. Her husband has to be dragged away from the hospital by the cops. She can't get medication she needs because a national chain has taken over the local drug store. The local druggist is no longer there to, in her mother's words, "wheel and deal."

Anneka, who once fired off tirades to elected officials at the least provocation, no longer cares. "'Maybe the condition doesn't kill . . . maybe the pills kill. But who knows? I'm so tired trying to figure it out.' . . . Anneka shakes her head . . . her face whiter than usual, not that sweet melancholy pallor, but a bad pallor, cadaver white."

The novel ends with Anneka watching a monster movie on television, a "humongous" mother intent on rescuing her child. The movie ends happily, as the reunited monster mother and child disappear into the sea. In Egypt, Maine, life is considerably more complicated.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Merry Men"

Author: Carolyn Chute

Publisher: Harcourt Brace and Co.

Length, price: 695 pages, $24.95

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