The rise to manhood of Walt Harrington

September 01, 2002|By Gary Dorsey | By Gary Dorsey,Sun Staff

The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family, By Walt Harrington. Atlantic Monthly Press. 192 pages. $23.

Walt Harrington was an effete Washington Post reporter shamelessly driven to manicures, Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir, $700 Tallia suits, fine art and antique collectibles. He was an apparent newsroom toady and know-it-all. A man of ample ambitions and certain talent.

The story of how he managed to transcend his paltry manhood through rabbit hunting with his working class father-in-law could either be a comic romp or sentimental rubbish. Instead, he has managed to spin it into a peculiarly pleasurable book, written well, layered with passionate characters, noisy with distinct voices and rife with conviction. It is a little self-satisfied and a bit of a conversion narrative, but also earnest enough and odd enough, as they say in publishing, to "find its market."

There are, after all, plenty of dissatisfied, cosmopolitan men who, one could argue, would do well to pick up a gun, apprentice themselves to some countrified gentlemen and light out after little bunnies like old Walt does once in a while. This book is for them.

The path Harrington follows on his transformation rises out of a familiar myth in American life: The child of working-class parents lifts himself up by the bootstraps, burns with ambition, elevates through social ranks, succeeds by hard work, becomes the person he might once have abhorred, escapes his predicament by purging himself of class consciousness and returns to the estimable values of his childhood.

It may be an old chestnut, but it is in the way Harrington fashions the piece -- artfully masked in hunting lore, the vernacular of Kentucky good old boys and guiltless confessions of his ascension into Washington journalism -- that gives the effort genuine appeal.

The story is set mostly where it begins, in the woods of rural Glasgow, Ky., homeplace of his wife's family, among a small group of African-American men whom Harrington initially describes as "country characters from central casting, quaint and amusing." It is not of just passing interest that the author is white and the other men, including his "quaint" father-in-law, are black. That they manage to accept him and, in fact, over more than 12 years, draw him into the warmth of their company is fairly astonishing.

What begins as a social obligation to join his wife's father one Thanksgiving "stomping through briars and corn stubble in a chilling drizzle," becomes a life-altering habit. The men who tutor him, as he merges into their lives through modest hunting adventures, slowly engage him emotionally, forcing him to question the shallowness of his values, his excessive professional ambitions and, finally, nothing less than what it means to be a man.

While these private reflections are significant enough to bring him to end his association with the Post and take up teaching at a Midwestern university, they seem a little belabored in the retelling. Fortunately, his philosophical digressions do not detract from excellent passages that describe the sport, cleaning rabbits, the old men's cackling conversations and ecstatic moments of self-awareness among the crew after a particularly fine hunt.

Years ago, Harrington's profiles of famous people brought some sparkle to the pages of The Washington Post. This book shows him to be a much improved writer and, apparently, a greatly matured man.

Gary Dorsey writes for the features department at The Sun. He is author of three books of narrative nonfiction. His Congregation, published in 1995, was a first-person account of a New England, small-town church.

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