Wild things give literature a living spine of validity

The Argument

Land, water, fauna rise above the fads of wordplay and postmodernist narcissism.


February 10, 2002|By Heather Dewar | By Heather Dewar,Sun Staff

KEY WEST -- The continuing obliteration of America's unique creatures and communities may be bad for the planet, but it's a boon to literature. American writers and readers have always been infatuated by stories about the land. We're a nation of wanderers and their descendants, and the question "What is my place in the world?" has always been a compelling one. In the past couple of decades, it's become even more urgent as we face the hard truth that, whether we choose to leave home or stay put, home is leaving us.

More and more of our best writers are turning away from the gee-whizzery, the preoccupation with wordplay and with stories set in the arid halls of academe that dominated American literature during the Cold War years and well beyond. These writers are devoting themselves to chronicling our vanishing landscapes and the communities that sprang from them. They are tackling the oldest and most heart-stirring of themes: loss, and the anger and grief it provokes. And readers are responding.

The evidence goes beyond the crowded shelves of the "natural history" sections that sprang up in bookstores over the past decade. Consider the reaction to last month's Key West Literary Seminar, whose subject was "The Spirit of Place."

The seminar, now in its 20th year, has always limited enrollment to 375 people. It sold out for the first time in 1996, when it featured a baker's dozen of the country's best nature writers. But this year the four-day event sold out nearly 12 months before its Jan. 10 opening.

Organizers quickly scheduled a second four-day session -- something they've never done before. That too was a sellout. And though Sept. 11 brought a wave of cancellations, in the end every seat at both seminars was filled, said Miles Frieden, the event's executive director.

If you subscribe to the old saw that there are only two basic plots in literature, "a stranger comes to town" and "someone goes on a trip," then the two dozen writers who came to the town of Key West were devotees of the light-out-for-the-territories school of storytelling. Besides their considerable talents, all had something else in common: their stories are about the ways that places shape people. And unlike the works of the postmodernist crowd, these chronicles of love and loss are intended to touch readers' hearts as deeply as their minds.

A case in point: Peter Matthiessen, who must surely have visited every outpost of wildness on earth while researching his 28 books, has most recently traveled from the Siberian steppes to Southeast Asia, South Africa and the sandbars of Nebraska's Platte River in pursuit of The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes (North Point Press, 349 pages, $27.50). Readers may care little for the world's imperiled birds. But anyone whose heart has ever been suddenly pierced by an unexpected moment of wild beauty will be seduced by this book's accumulation of many such transcendent moments, simply and precisely rendered. In the end, Matthiessen's skill makes it impossible not to love the beautiful-but-doomed earth he portrays.

Novelist, memoirist and poet Michael Ondaatje -- a native of Sri Lanka now living in Canada -- told the Key West audience he begins each book by choosing a place and time, and waiting for characters and plot to emerge. Ondaatje's descriptions of place become the driving forces in his stories; try to imagine The English Patient with no North African desert and no ruined villa in the Italian countryside.

And satirical novelist Carl Hiaasen takes setting-as-character to harrowing extremes. Hiaasen's characters race from one greed-blighted Florida landscape to the next, until divine justice strands them in a swamp, on a tide-sucked sandspit or under a landfill.

It would be a mistake, Hiaasen said, to read the anti-development vitriol that pours from his pages as a metaphor for anything else.

"Four hundred fifty acres a day of Florida are being paved over," Hiaasen said. "That's no metaphor."

Novelist Dorothy Allison, who grew up moving from one Greenville, S.C., shotgun shack to another, has mixed feelings about the new South, where the action has shifted from the crossroads to the bypass and fast food has supplanted home-canned. In her novels, someone is always fleeing a hard-scrabble Southern town -- or rushing cross-country to return to its narrow embrace. Loss is a recurring theme, she told the Key West audience:

"Home ain't there no more. The gift that is, and the curse. How it hurts to lose the place where you were made, and how it sets you free."

Even for John Barth, Maryland's own magus of postmodernism, a writer's choice of setting matters. In his new book, Coming Soon!!! (Houghton Mifflin Co., 396 pages, $26), Barth has deliberately written the quintessential postmodernist novel. It's an academic yarn that tells of the encounter between a "novelist emeritus" and an ambitious young "novelist aspirant."

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