reviewed by Stephen Barnes
The old saw among the literati, that all novel plots can really be reduced to just two—namely, a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town—is given the lie in Glenn Arbery’s stunning first novel, Bearings and Distances. The two plots can be combined, producing a third possibility: a man may leave his home only to return as a stranger, a stranger even to himself. This, of course, is not unique to Arbery’s novel, for it is a pattern seen in many great literary works, going at least as far back as the story of Oedipus. In one respect, then, Bearings and Distances is a traditional work that weaves into itself threads, threads traceable from Sumeria to Yoknapatawpha, that hold together the grand literary tradition informing Arbery’s imagination. Readers steeped in that same tradition will appreciate the intertextual echoes and resonances of this novel. They will also, however, find in it something utterly contemporary, for the novel’s idiom is fresh—at turns jaunty and ribald, then sensitive and lyrical—calling to mind the rich beauty and the undeniable humor and, most importantly, the deep mystery that mark the human experience.
More than a few readers will find a recognizable name in the novelist’s. To many, Arbery is known as an astute reader of imaginative literature rather than a writer of it. Others, however, will think of him not primarily as the first-rate literary and theater critic he is but, rather, as a master educator, a mentor, a consummate teacher of teachers in programs offered at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, where he served as Director of the Teachers Academy from 1997-2003. Finally, some will undoubtedly know him as a college administrator, for in April 2016, Arbery was named President of Wyoming Catholic College. His appointment as WCC’s head signals a new stage in his career, but the transition should come as no surprise to those who know of his deep investment in higher education. His recent turn toward creative writing (to be fair, Arbery has published a dozen or so poems over the years) could evoke no small amount of wonder, however, among those who know his previous work and reputation.
But perhaps it is not entirely accurate to think of Bearings and Distances as a new venture, for it is, in many respects, a kind of homecoming for Arbery, as well as his protagonist. Both are men of letters; both can trace their beginnings, in life and in literature, to small, racially divided communities in the South. In a dark reworking of the nostos plot, Arbery’s novel tells of Braxton Forrest’s return in the summer of 2009 to Gallatin, Georgia (a thinly disguised rendering of Arbery’s native Forsyth, Georgia), the hometown that Forrest left soon after his high school graduation in 1969. A football hero and a National Merit Scholar, Forrest was once Gallatin’s golden boy, but his homecoming after a forty-year absence—the biblical proportions should not be missed—is far from glorious. Instead, it is a reckoning of accounts for the protagonist, a comeuppance of sorts, with revelations and disclosures that call to mind Oedipus’s return to Thebes more so than they do Odysseus’s to Ithaka.
Chapter one opens with Forrest discovering the folly of his efforts to curry favor with his aging, heirless relative, Cousin Emily Barron Hayes. In hopes of landing himself in his distant relative’s good graces, and in her will, Forrest has foolishly sent his two teenage daughters to stay with Cousin Emily in Gallatin while he and his wife, Marisa, travel to Italy to work on their failing marriage. Still charming at nearly sixty years old, Forrest is responsible for the couple’s unhappiness, his serial infidelities with coeds (“succulents” as he calls them) having finally pushed Marisa to the breaking point. While in Italy, he learns that his daughters have not been welcomed by Cousin Emily, so he is forced to cut short his trip to Italy, leaving Marisa in Rome while he flies to Georgia to retrieve his teenage girls. His return to Gallatin wakens what has lain dormant since 1969: an ignored past that includes not only a brief, torrid love affair between Forrest, who is white, and Marilyn Harkins, who is black, but also rumors of Forrest’s role in a possible murder that still haunts the community.
Bookending but also interspersed throughout the primary storyline is the subplot of Hermia Watson, a young, aspiring scholar of black history and a long-time admirer of Professor Braxton Forrest’s work in the field of literary and cultural studies. Introduced in the novel’s eerie prologue as the “The Undertaker’s Daughter,” Hermia spent her early childhood in a house adjoined to a funeral home, a “hush-your-mouth-place” where she was reminded “that if she talked too loud, the dead people might wake up.” The vignette into Hermia’s early years introduces images and themes that unfold throughout the remainder of the novel. In the book’s epilogue, Hermia’s story is offered as the last word, though her own story is presented then in a higher, more hopeful register. Within the course of events, Forrest and Hermia will come to terms with a past that each has tried to ignore, ultimately discovering the unimaginable ways that their lives are intertwined.
Even with Hermia’s subplot providing the story a brief glimpse into a comic realm, its generic arc is best described as mytho-tragic: throughout the story run allusions to Gilgamesh, Oedipus, and Achilles, to name just a few. The narrative’s language can at times approach the power of lyric: “Taut and clean, shining like the sun, he felt the line coming still, centering all the way through him, an absolute vertical in a wilderness of stars.” And its plot is utterly compelling, just the kind of commitment to realistic narrative that Arbery in a 2011 piece maintained is the hallmark of the “greatest literature of the Christian tradition.” His argument in that critical essay argued that such literature is like “the Bible in its type of realism,” committed to the “the historical ‘givenness’ of what [is] depicted—for example, the real men and women of [Dante’s] Commedia or [Flannery] O’Connor’s true-to-Georgia characters” (First Things, April 2011, p. 54). So the depiction in Bearings and Distances of small town life in the American South—too often an admixture of religion, eros, and violence that often points toward but often fails to achieve love and redemption—rings true, for this is the world that Arbery himself knows, the world that he takes as “given.” Nonetheless, the story cannot be reduced to its historical context, for shining through the hic et nunc is the transcendent and the spiritual, or at least their brilliant possibility. The luminous presence of the anagogical dimension of literature pervades the novel, but like a figure in the dark, the story’s profound hopefulness can be seen only if viewed askance.
At times the radiance of that divine dimension does break through, however. For instance, in quiet ways, Marisa’s religious devotion illuminates the story, acting as an ever-present, though generally ignored, source of hope for Forrest and their daughters, Cate and Bernadette, who are at risk of being ruined by their father’s recklessness. In writing about Marisa’s faith, Arbery strikes a difficult balance that avoids skepticism on the one hand and sentimentalism on the other—dodging both mockery and mawkishness—and thus allowing the character’s piety to glow unironically and really, even if always on the narrative’s margins. At other times, this otherworldly dimension is evident in literary allusions peppered throughout the story. An especially noteworthy example is a reference to Dante’s Inferno. After being tricked by a character on a plane, a passenger who pretends “to be somebody else,” Forrest reflects on the deception: “That was a sin, wasn’t it? Counterfeiters of persons were far down in Hell.” Without giving too much a way, I would add that unknown and mistaken identities sits at the very heart of the story.
The most obvious example of a spiritual or supernatural dimension to the novel is the recurrence of the “dark women” who haunt the story. Arbery wisely hedges in their depiction, relegating the Fury-like figures (are they the Graeae?) to the subconscious, and thus not overtaxing readers’ credulity. Yet the nightmares and dreamscapes wherein the mysterious figures dwell is a realm entered by more than one character; hence, space is carved out in the reader’s imagination, raising the possibility that metaphysical presences are part of the human realm and, consequently, that human existence matters in ways that Forrest himself would like to deny. For instance, when Marisa threatens to annul their marriage, the narrative reads, “[T]he thought of losing her panicked [Forrest]. They were a couple, Braxton and Marisa. The occasional college girls didn’t mean a thing. Seriously. They were just a diversion, a spice. Insignificant.” The story ultimately refutes his judgment, making clear that “insignificant” is exactly what Forrest’s philandering is not, a truth that he must ultimately acknowledge. The “dark women,” in terrifying ways, help to drive that point home. What emerges as an overarching concern in the story, then, is the importance of truth-telling, both to others and to oneself.
To focus on these weighty matters solely is to ignore another important aspect of Bearings and Distances—namely, its frequent laughter. Occasionally Arbery lets himself play the humorist, and readers will be pleased when he does. Perhaps the comic strain that runs through this novel reveals how deeply the Christian story has altered the imagination of its author. (Can one really believe in grace and not laugh?) The novel’s humor is especially pronounced in sections where the narration focuses on Chick Lee, Forrest’s old schoolmate who is unwittingly drawn into the heart of the action. Chick is sentimental and “a little soft,” having spent his younger years overshadowed by “Braxton Frigging Forrest,” his “bigger, smarter, stronger, better-looking” rival. The cause of their rivalry is Tricia Honeycutt, the “goddess” Chick worshipped in high school. She, however, had been charmed by Forrest; against his looks and intelligence and charm, Chick never had a chance. In what is perhaps the book’s funniest scene, and one that I dare not spoil for readers, Chick acknowledges that Forrest’s superiority is a kind of bawdy “predestination” that he should have accepted long ago.
After Forrest unceremoniously dumped Tricia during the fateful summer in 1969, Chick remained quietly protective of her for the intervening four decades, even after both he and Tricia have gone on to marry others. Chick has predictably married a woman named Patricia, who is rightly jealous of her husband’s old flame. Tricia Honeycutt eventually became the wife of portly, pretentious Judah Davis, onto whom Chick now heaps his jealousy and scorn. In the following passage, Arbery’s narration lapses into the free indirect style, showing the world through Chick’s eyes:
What Judah Davis had needed early in life was about two years of [high school football coach] Fitzgerald. For instance, his pants. Most men would buy a waist size that rode more or less around their hips, even if their stomachs hung over a little like Chick’s. But not high-water Judah. He was one of those people who [. . .] buckled his pants right over the fattest part of him. That must be because he had one of those butts like a couple of sofa cushions. It embarrassed you to see a butt like that on a fellow male. [. . .] The mystery was how [Tricia] had consented seventeen years ago to conceive [their daughter] Bridget with Humpty Dumpty.
The voice here is the narrator’s, but the petulance is all Chick’s. And if laughter ensues, it flows more from Chick’s adolescent sulk than from Judah’s bad dress and soft physique.
I began this review by noting that this is Arbery’s first novel, a fact that may surprise readers who dive into Bearings and Distances unwitting of that fact. The writing here is controlled and masterful throughout, even as the complexities of the plot multiply. For more than thirty years, Arbery has shown himself to be an exceptionally sensitive interpreter of literature and critic of the arts. See, for example, Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation (ISI, 2001) or his many razor-sharp reviews and witty editorials written for D Magazine between 2006 and 2010. So perhaps it should be no great shock that he has produced such a fine work in his first foray as a novelist, his years as a close reader of the finest literature having served as a long apprenticeship. Indeed, in the original sense of the word, Arbery has produced his masterpiece, thus marking his entrance into a new guild.
Finally, the publisher of the novel, Wiseblood Books, is also worthy of a brief plug. According to the its website, the aim of the small press, launched only in 2013, is to “find redemption in uncanny places and people,” to “articulate faith and doubt in their incarnate complexity,” and to “suffer through this world’s trials without forfeiting hope.” Laudable aspirations, indeed! One longs to see such small presses not only survive but thrive. If Wiseblood continues to publish such unexpected gems as Bearings and Distances, then its future—like Arbery’s own as a novelist—is one that promises to achieve that mission in spades.