YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Northern Gothic : WOMEN OF GRANITE By Dana Andrew Jennings , (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $21.95; 295 pp.)

August 09, 1992|Ariel Swartley | Swartley is a former New Englander who writes about popular culture.

The New Hampshire of white houses, village greens and gruff good neighbors that Robert Frost memorialized makes no more than a token appearance in "Women of Granite." Dana Andrew Jennings' second novel is set in places that tourists never see: on the overgrown logging tracks that form a kind of secret backwoods freeway system; in the bramble-choked swamps where copperhead snakes make a last lurking stand against extinction. And most of all, in the bleak crossroads known as Page's Village, Appalachia's northernmost outpost. Its falling-down houses belong to Nanna Page and her descendants: implacable, thick-waisted women, cigarette smokers, linoleum scrubbers, grandmothers before they're 40.

The Pages make a mockery of the phrase "old New England family." Their roots may stretch back to the nation's founding, but in Jennings' fictional town of Granite, poverty endured too long becomes a sin. A bright Page child entering the schoolyard discovers she has already been written off by teachers and pupils both. As Granite's crabbed Yankee wisdom puts it, "The apple don't fall far from the tree."

Nanna Page's response has been to make her clan self-sufficient, both economically and emotionally. Living within a stone's throw of each other, they don't need Granite's "services." They chop their own wood, haul their own water, and whenever a Page travels too far down the road of iniquity he or she encounters Nanna's summary justice, not the law's.

These survival tactics have produced mixed results. Nanna's daughter Leah and granddaughter Sarah are rocks, not only in build but in character. "Raised on circumspection and punished with silence," they marry the men who make them pregnant, no matter what. Dreams, like tears, have no place in Nanna's world, so Sarah emerges from bouts of numbing clinical depression to pack olive-loaf sandwiches for the lunch boxes, and remind the children with Yankee thrift "to hang on to their baggies."

Page men, on the other hand, have a lot in common with copperheads. They're apt to be covert, cunning and full of poison. "Women of Granite" begins in a headlong, brutal rush as 9-year-old Sarah discovers her uncle raping an 11-year-old cousin. By the book's end, 30 years later, the majority of the village's male inhabitants have died by violence. And yet Page's Village endures despite the ravages of the highway department bulldozers. What's more, Jennings has managed to make us glad of its survival.

Thanks to novelists as different as Maine's Stephen King and Carolyn Chute and Southern California's Kem Nunn, what used to be known as the Southern Gothic tradition has, in the late 20th Century, become a vehicle for writing about that most taboo American subject: class.

In Page's Village, evil comes in exaggerated horror-story shapes. In addition to a glassy-eyed sex maniac (Uncle Dead) and an avenging angel (Nanna) who acts more like a witch, Jennings provides a forgotten swamp creature, and an armored death car that looks like something out of sci-fi comics. But in Jennings' New Hampshire, which is almost as insular as Faulkner's South, monsters are easier to believe in than the existence of a permanent underclass.

Despite the Gothic extremism, Jennings does not keep the sort of distance from his subjects that Carolyn Chute did in "The Beans of Egypt Maine." If the swamp behind Page's Village is a lurid metaphor for New England's heart of darkness, it's also an austerely beautiful landscape, spangled with ice in one season and blackberries in the other. Even Uncle Dead's armored truck, its bumpers "sharpened to spear points," is a malignant example of one of the few creative pastimes Granite affords its young men: building and racing stock cars.

"Nothing's better than racing when you're twenty years old and pissed off at the world," Sarah's husband Russ--one of the book's few admirable males--mourns. "There's just something about the sound that always gets me. . . . You stand there sopping up the smell of the hot rubber flayed from the tires, and your ears feel like someone's pouring in fresh candle wax."

Jennings may tell his story mostly through the eyes of women, but his own relationship with his home state is at issue, too. (He doesn't live there any more.) He has taken such pains to record the precise, peculiar flavor of the place ("bittersweet and thick as fresh-laid tar") that the book casts an almost hallucinatory spell. But as with all spells, "Women of Granite" warns, there are dangers.

Like others of society's rejects, Pages find themselves caught in a vicious self-perpetuating circle. Memories are the only riches Page's Village has to offer, but its inhabitants are doomed to a marginal existence if they stay at home with them. They are, however, doubly damned if they leave.

"Kids I go to school with don't understand Page's Village or why I work like a dog," Sarah's daughter Hannah explains, "and everyone back home thinks I've gone off to college and gotten too big for my britches. It's like someone's tied me to two horses and told them to run in opposite directions." Such divided loyalties may complicate a person's life, but they surely enrich Jennings' novel.

Los Angeles Times Articles