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Getting Back to Nature for Frontiersman's Tale : Today's Wilds Give Novelist Clues to Past

January 22, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

All night, as he tossed and turned on the floor of the cabin in the forest, the Easterner's sleepless excitement was punctuated by a mysterious sound.

When dawn came and light filled the cages around him, he saw what had made the "sloughing" noise--a water moccasin shedding its skin.

For Hugh Nissenson--lifetime New Yorker and urban novelist--that morning in the modern-day wilds of Ohio was a revelation about the past. And what he had to do to write about the early American frontier.

Getting 'In Touch'

Turning to his host in the Midwest woods, a naturalist who had collected the animals, Nissenson asked for the skin. "I brought it back to New York and I kept looking at it and the palpable feeling that this gave me struck a chord," he would say later. "I told myself it's the physical that I have to get in touch with."

Thus began Nissenson's literal pursuit of the past as he labored seven years to write "The Tree of Life" (Harper & Row: $15.95), a spare (159 pages) novel in the form of the journal of Thomas Keene, a Harvard graduate who had joined the pioneer wave in the wilds of Richland County, Ohio, in 1811.

As the work progressed, so would Nissenson's collection of artifacts and other aids that would transport his imagination--a Harper's Ferry musket, a tomahawk, a damaged human skull, the skins and mounted heads of a bear, a deer, a panther, a model of a horned owl, the leaves of plants and a set of buckskins such as Keene might have worn. He learned to throw the tomahawk and fire the musket--"just like Tom would have"--courtesy of a black-powder firearms club in New Jersey.

But the most magical moment came in Manhattan. "The first time I put on my buckskin in my New York apartment, I looked in the mirror and it was a wonderful experience because suddenly I was transformed, it was real. I said, 'My God, I've gotten into the skin of this man.' Somehow I had made a qualitative leap of imagination. . . . I became him. One of the things about a work of imagination is you lose yourself. There is a moment for me in the creation of any book or short story which is quite scary because I sense that the membrane which encloses my personality bursts and I become many things and people. . . ."

Nissenson, who jetted last week to the Far West to talk about his fifth book and second novel, sees "The Tree of Life" as the payoff for a career that has been high on critical praise and low on commercial success. The novel has received lead reviews in some publications, including Time magazine, and has been praised by nearly everyone, including The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

Second Printing

More importantly to Nissenson, the book has found readers, as evidenced by the fact that the novel is in its second printing. "This one has suddenly confirmed my deepest hope--that there is out there a literate, serious audience of my peers," he said. "All my life I've followed my own impulses. . . . I could do no other in terms of what I was writing about. I was pursuing an inner need, an inner vision, an inner aesthetic and I find I was right. . . . The American audience has just kind of zonked me."

Before he discovered the charms and lures of early 19th-Century America, Nissenson, 53, had devoted himself largely to fiction and nonfiction about the Jewish experience in New York and Israel. He also had written widely for many magazines and covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi engineer of the "final solution," who was tried and hanged by the Israelis in 1962.

By his own and other accounts, Nissenson has had a lucky life, including the luxury to do what he wants because he has been supported by his wife, a television producer. But Nissenson also said that his output has been low, partly because he is an "excruciatingly slow" writer who revises almost before he completes a sentence.

This is especially evident in "The Tree of Life" which is as lean as any of its hard-bitten, hardscrabble characters. Nissenson made it that way because he believes the novel must shift its ground from the sprawling narrative so common of the last century to smaller turf more at home in the late 20th.

"I feel that the only way the novel is going to survive is by doing what I've tried to do and I think I've accomplished in this book, which is to reduce it and to restore the promise of the word, the importance of the written word," he said. "What the word does to the human being is something special . . . each word has to be potent and powerful."

A book store browser might doubt Nissenson's claim. At first glance "The Tree of Life" seems to be a disorderly assortment of lists of farm implements and minor purchases, days when Thomas Keene can only scribble "drunk" in his journal and rather random accounts of daily chores and contacts with others in the wilderness.

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