“Yet at last, he was only a man, who, like so many of us, had dreams that exceeded him.”
There are some places that imprint themselves so deeply in the people who live there, that either you never leave or you always come back. That’s the thought that occurred to me when I read The Barrowfields from Phillip Lewis. As the title suggests, the plot and its characters are tied to a particular geographical area: in this case, Old Buckram, North Carolina, “an achromatic town high in the Appalachian Mountains.” The Barrowfields of the title is an area which probably should be named the Barren Fields but somebody made a mistake along the way. It’s a place “where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss.”
Growing up in extreme poverty, Henry Aster is a cuckoo in the nest of this large, impoverished and nearly illiterate household. As a child, Henry grabs onto the power of books and never lets go, even at one point stealing library books and hoarding them under his bed for future reads. Eventually, Henry leaves home and goes to college and law school only to return when his mother (she’s constantly smoking–her one vice) becomes ill. Coming home is a mistake for Henry. …
Henry, with ambitions to become “a beloved American writer,” and his horse-loving wife Eleonore, buy an abandoned mansion, built by an dying architect with a penchant for the occult. Its gothic, vlad-the-impaler design makes the house a unique, intriguing, yet daunting prospect. The house, “a monstrous gothic skeleton,” has a tragic history, but the Asters ignore it–even though of course they simply become another twist in the house’s past.
On a high shoulder of the mountain, half hidden by a row of wraithlike trees as old as time itself, sat an immense house of black iron and glass. During the day, it was an odd architectural curiosity. Due to a subtle trick of the mountain’s folding ridges, it seemed always to be in shadow, even when the sun blazed in a cloudless sky above it. From morning to night, it was cloaked in a slowly swirling mist as thick as smoke from a fire. At night, it brooded in darkness like an ember-eyed bird of prey on the edge of the mountain. Never before had a house been built like it, and never would another be built.
While Henry practices “a brief legal career with one of the two law offices in town,” by night he drinks himself into oblivion and tries to write. His wife has her horses, and the house, with its magnificent library is a fabulous labyrinth of childhood fantasies for Henry and Eleonore’s son, also called Henry.
This is a sweeping novel about a man who’s deeply rooted to a region he can’t wait to escape from, and Henry’s ultimate abandonment of his wife and children is the central mystery/emotional dilemma of the plot. I loved the first half of The Barrowfields, with its fine Southern tradition, but the second half with Henry junior’s life becoming the focus, just couldn’t match up to the first half. There’s so much going on here–so much so I wondered how this would read in serial form. The whole build up of the house with its tragic past never really goes anywhere, but hangs like a faded banner over the new residents, and the whole baby sister episode just seemed another layer of melodrama/tragedy that existed for its own sake.
Sprawling, ambitious and flawed this is a novel about fathers and sons. It’s described as a coming-of-age novel, but for me it was more about identity. There are some very fine parts indeed here which are evidence of perhaps future books we might expect from this author, for example, when son Henry, describes how his father has developed a persona to converse with the locals:
He knew how to talk like them, though. He knew how to cock his head just right, and hold his mouth open, and say, “You don’t say” and “Damn,” when he heard a remarkable story, and “Yep” and “Naw” and always “Come with us,” at the end of any conversation with an acquaintance met in an unexpected place. He’d run into someone at the grocery store and listen intently as the man talked. He’d listen with a deep focus, looking dead into the man’s eyes, almost unblinking and without saying much of anything, hunched slightly to be more or less on the same level with the man, without anything much beyond an anthropological interest in the story and the man telling it, and at the end of it he’d offer amusement and say something like, “Well, all right, Junior, I hope you have a good night. I reckon I better get on home.