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IN BRIEF

Environment

April 18, 1993|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

A GOOD HOUSE: Building a Life on the Land by Richard Manning. (Grove: $21.95; 238 pp.) Manning, a journalist who has written extensively on environmental issues, particularly the logging industry, has spent much of his life, as he puts it in a variety of ways, handling paper. So behind the whole project, this book, this house that he builds, is an effort to move from his head to his heart and his hands. It is fascinating to watch him handle the materials and tools of home-building--from money to concrete to wood, power, light and filth. Of course he is still a journalist even as he helps dowse and dig ditches, so by the time he asks the simple question: "Was I building the door this way because it would make a good door, or because it would make a good paragraph," we feel, even if he doesn't, that he has resolved the head and hands debate simply by doing both at the same time. "Craft is work," he says during the same revelation. Words are tools. Readers control the story just as wood controls the carpenter. It is all of a piece.

Mostly, the book is more lighthearted than all that. The descriptions of the people Manning interacts with as he builds his house; Skinny Jim and Trusty Dave the hole digger and McKee the banker and Bruce the well witch, are lively and entertaining. This leaves descriptions of those closest to Manning; his wife Tracy, his close friends and neighbors and most frustratingly his estranged son Josh comparably flat and incomplete. But these are subplots. The man built himself a house in Montana. And it was Good.

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