Tuesday, July 26, 2016

BRIGHTFELLOW by Rikki Ducornet is a deeply pleasurable summer read


Coffee House Press
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A feral boy comes of age on a campus decadent with starched sheets, sweating cocktails, and homemade jams. Stub is the cause of that missing sweater, the pie that disappeared off the cooling rack. Then Stub meets Billy, who takes him in, and Asthma, who enchants him, and all is found, then lost. A fragrant, voluptuous novel of imposture, misplaced affection, and the many ways we are both visible and invisible to one another.

My Review: Why do people read Rikki Ducornet's novels? That's not the beginning of a takedown. It's a question that, in the final analysis, will tell the reader why a certain reviewer is likely to highlight factors of equal importance to potential Ducornet reader and reviewer alike. It's sad that I feel the need to say this, but there is no right or wrong answer to the question; one looks for whatever one wishes, for whatever personal reason, and de gustibus et coloribus non disputandum est.

I'm always up for a trip to the effervescent fountain of Ducornet's verbal effusions. I love the simple, natural way she uses words to create images that less gifted writers can only envy. Her work is filled with glorious and gorgeous moments that are invisible to most people and all but the most fortunate muse-chasers:
Sometimes when the snow falls she says: How I love weather. And he loves her for it. Loves her for it so much his heart blooms like a tiger lily and he roars his happiness; he roars and runs about and his pleasure delights her. In these moments their friendship is secure, eternal, luminous; their friendship rings the hours. These words of hers give him hope; he too loves weather, the safety of seasons, each bringing a gift: snow, rain, sun, wind. But because he is a dreamy child, fall is his favorite. Perhaps it reflects the best moments of family life: days of color, of clement weather--and this before the first mornings of heavy fog; the first blizzard when the sky is wiped away and the sun dissolves in brine; the first ice storm, one of many, when he can hear the world outside shattering.
My favorite season is also fall, but never in a million years could I have conjured such a gorgeous litany of reasons it is so. And although my own difficult mother and I shared a love for the weather and the progress of seasons, I wouldn't have thought of this as cement for a friendship that would make her inevitable betrayal of the mother/child bond (after all this is Rikki Ducornet's novel we're talking about and this is her evergreen trope) all the sharper and more painful.

It's very clear that Ducornet grew up in Canton, New York, for some of her childhood. It's not a very interesting place despite the presence of St. Lawrence University, with SUNY-Plattsburgh nearby. It is, however, a place that would logically create a passion for nature in its natives. It seems to have imbued Ducornet and her writing with a sense of place that underpins even her most shatteringly painful life events, as foreshadowed here:
Along the Hudson River, the world goes on forever, unspooling, and just when you think you know it, something happens, the summer is snatched away by an ice storm, a blizzard dissolves the spring, there are moths in sudden numbers, an unprecedented migration of geese. Autumn arrives unparalleled in its beauty. The river gleams, there are shad and snapping turtles, quantities of water chestnuts, and under porches: copperheads.

If America has gods, this is where they dwell--under rocks, in the branches of trees, in ivy, skunkweed, the hearts of fish, the flight of geese. But--everyone says it--things no longer shine as they once did. Ever since the war, everything is dimmer.
Ever since we, the people, learned that there is no place far enough away to hide from the evils that frightened people will support for the frayed, flimsy illusion of security. Ever since the end of our collective childhood. How cruel that maturity, the loss of illusion, rips the gloss of the natural world away from us as well as the comforting lie that people are good and kind instead of behaving in good and kind ways when it suits them to. Yet the sense of the uniqueness of a place, once learned, is impossible to put aside or have torn from you. It is, I suppose, why exceptionally calm and generous people are called "grounded," since all of such people I've met have this inalienable sense of place. Come to think of it, they also have lost their illusions about the benignity of both nature and humanity. They've been Ducorneted.

Stub, our PoV character, has been Ducorneted. His childhood was scraped off him with a wood-rasp, leaving blood and exposed nerve endings. He's free, in other words. Like many people he finds freedom a little bewildering at first, and sets out to create something recognizable as a life in the most familiar environment he can find. The college, unnamed but full of rich, privileged kids, has dominated Stub's world since he can remember. Ducornet's description of the place makes it clear she's modeling it on Bard College where her father was a Professor after World War II. Stub's father was a maintenance man at the college, so after his father's death it feels natural to him to take up a stealth existence there. He feasts on the leavings of others, the rich kids' carelessly tossed aside possessions that they'll never miss. He eats what he can scrounge. He's an unseen part, but a part nonetheless, of the college's life. He sees everything and is affected by little of it, as he's never been part of such a normal world. Then comes the emotional entanglement that ends Stub's existence:
The first time he saw Asthma she was in a tree. He had already seen Blackie, a hot machine made of rivets and spinning gears, like a pressure cooker and a robot combined. She was like his own mother, always heating up and letting off steam. Asthma was better off in the tree than in the house.
And so is born the curiously asexual passion of a young man for a child. It's more than a little bit creepy.

It is also the event that fractures the shell of Stub's isolated hunter-gatherer existence. It necessitates a new identity, so Stub becomes "Charter Chase." He foregoes his wandering freedom and accepts the kind charity of an elderly retiree, Billy, who lives next door to Asthma and her horrid mother Blackie. He sings for his supper, taking as his score the work and life of a reclusive former professor and writer called Vanderloon. His youthful haunting of the college library had introduced Charter to Vanderloon and his bizarre life and works. The college possesses the entire archive of Vanderloon's career squirreled away, uncatalogued, in the library where no one is interested in it or ever consults it. Charter takes this as his identity for Billy's sake. He creates himself as a scholar of this unpopular writer, giving himself wide latitude to invent tales tailored to suit Billy's lonely old heart:
Vision is one thing, Vanderloon liked to say, and observation is another. When on Easter Island he had learned of the bird's superiority over the fish, he understood in a flash what informed the entire culture. He saw that the Easter Islanders were themselves like raptors, snapping away at one another until there was nothing left. Easter Island, he wrote in Rules of Rage, is the mirror of all that is wrong with a species that again and again snaps up the fish rather than attempt to understand it. Today Charter puzzles over this. He thinks he does not want to be either one. He wants to survive but not snap anybody up in the process. A hare is what he wants to be. The one that with a leap, disappears.
He will make sure that he gives value for value received, but there is no way for Charter to know what "forever" or even "sometimes" means in relationship to others. He is a raptor, denying his raptor's nature. It can't and won't last.

While it does, at least in reference to Billy, Charter's unique passion has a safe harbor. His window overlooks Asthma's bedroom, and he makes full use of his perch to view his obsession's object in all phases of her life, from quotidian tasks to wild fanciful play:
Asthma plucks [the crocodile] from the crowd [of toy animals] and sets him down in front of the bees.

"Tell the crocodile why you have come all this way to celebrate First Snow and stay here with us forever and ever!" The bees begin to buzz and to hum. (If you looked very closely, you would see that each carries a tiny musical instrument--a harmonica, zither, xylophone, castanets, and so on. One holds a baton.)

"Honey!" the bees sing. "Bee cake. Royal jelly!" The bees sing in harmony. Their music is prestissimo!
Nothing is more intoxicating that seeing a child at concentrated personal play. I'd guess that every parent has seen that deep, what-world? kind of play with the same wistful desire to experience it again, knowing that to insert oneself into the magic is to destroy it. Here's Charter, barely older than Asthma to jaded adult eyes, deeply engrossed in how deeply engrossed she is in a world of her own making. It's the most relatable part of Charter's verging-on-Lolita-level passion. It's completely understandable from that point of view, but still is a bit squicky.

He's chosen Asthma to be his Lolita and not the other faculty daughter living near both of them, called Pea Pod. Her mother is called Goldie, and seems to be perfectly suited to raise such an ordinary unremarkable little shrew. She is prone to fight with Asthma, to Charter's distress. Billy perceives all children as more or less interchangeable, since he's never been a father. They're merely noisy little savages. He has no idea how it hurts Charter to lump his precious Asthma in with a brat like Pea Pod. Why, even Pea Pod's own father has deeply mixed feelings about her (as well as the rest of his life):
Everything is so tiresome, so tedious. If only Pea Pod were an easier child to live with. And Goldie, too, is difficult. When they met he thought her handsome. He admired her heavy skeleton. She was clearly made to last. But now her size exhausts him. Living with Goldie is like living with a boa constrictor or a large piece of farm equipment. She's a tyrant, when you think of it, and when she sits down at the piano the world trembles.
The apple don't fall to far from the tree. Asthma has discovered Charter, as has Pea Pod, though without any joy such as Charter's presence and storytelling ability brings to Asthma. He spins sophisticated tales of wonder for her, amusing her with the concept of the queen of the beetles that live under a log in the front yard as "La Papesse," the Lady Pope, who is attended by courtier beetles bearing balls of cinnabar-infused beeswax to polish Her Holiness with. Shades of the relationship with Billy! Charter tells him equally fanciful tales that make about as much sense as this one. Because it is Charter telling it, the old man and the little girl who are loved by and in love with Charter accept the words, concepts, images he feeds them. Much like a reader and a writer, don't you think? As Pea Pod isn't fond of Charter, is even jealous of Charter's hold on Asthma, she doesn't stretch outside her ordinariness to play along.

It's in this passage that Charter receives a new identity, that of "Brightfellow," from his adored Asthma. It suits her image of him as a bright fellow, and it suits Brightfellow because he was given it by his Asthma:
Asthma. Asthma in the glass! A grain of sugar in his eye. Today she is leaping like a colt from the floor to her bed, bed to floor, floor to bed, then dashing through the house. Her feet are bare and her spare cotton dress billows like petals around her small frame. When he hears the front door slam he gets up to find and follow her. But when he hits the Circle she is simply in the front yard beside the beetle log, poking at it with a twig.

"So where are they, Brightfellow?" she asks.

"They live eventful lives."
And in his hands they do indeed. In her eyes, as in a sympathetic reader's, he is perfectly named Brightfellow.

In the end, and you know that it has to end, Brightfellow can't fool all the people all the time. His world on the Circle ends, but we are left with the clear knowledge that another begins for him. This is the source of my half-star hit on the story's rating. It's much of a Ducornetness with her other works, not that there's anything wrong with that!, but this ending simply feels incompatible with the rest of the book. It doesn't launch Brightfellow deeper into his strange inner world, nor does it drag him out of it. The event that wraps the story up is a set-up for more of the same. That doesn't really satisfy this reader. I am picky, I admit it, but I've seen La Ducornet pull much healthier rabbits out of her hat than this.

Still and all, still and all--this is a pleasure read and a perfect way to wile away a few hours on a hot summer afternoon.

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