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A Philosophy of Unease : Or, how the truth can reveal itself at the hardware store : THE VILLAGE: A Novel, By David Mamet (Little, Brown: $21.95; 248 pp.)

October 09, 1994|RICHARD EDER

David Mamet uses the people and voices in "The Village" as if he were hanging stars in the sky; not to illumine themselves but to reveal the world by their faint light. As with the speakers in "Under Milk Wood" and "Our Town," and despite their savory individuality, it is a choral and not an individual effect that he aims at.

Like Llareggub and Grovers Corners, Mamet's unnamed northern New England village is an emblem of human life and community; at once universal and imprinted with the author's intimate spoor. Dylan Thomas' nutshell cosmos vibrated to Welsh jokes and inklings; Thornton Wilder's was American Gothic with a small smile.

Mamet's is a place of male exploits, comradeship and anguish, with women as wraiths. Iron David's epiphanies take place in a garage, a hardware store, hunting, fishing, cutting cordwood, sniffing out the weather, navigating gun fairs and in bitten-off rumination larded with sociable silences.

A half-dozen characters and story fragments percolate through "The Village." Among them are Dickie, a melancholy hardware-store proprietor whose failing business epitomizes the decline of local life; Lynn, an old hunter; Trooper, the peace officer; and Martin, who runs the local garage and is the unself-conscious upholder and celebrator of the spirit of the place.

A more self-conscious and less secure celebrator is Henry, who threads his way through the book, watching, wondering and speculating. He is the outsider who comes to settle and can't quite, the intellectual who wants to be an adept countryman, a spirit of air who works at becoming a spirit of earth, and might almost succeed except that he spins theories around everything he does.

Henry is approximately an alter ego for Mamet, a playwright and screenwriter who has published numerous sketches on many of the country themes and male mysteries that are fictionalized in "The Village." Henry splits wood and takes such aesthetic pleasure in it (it warms you three times, he says: when you chop it, when you burn it and when you regard it stacked in great reassuring cords) that a disconcerting abstraction envelops the fine concreteness of the writing.

Equipped with all the right gear and studied craft, he goes skiing in the woods, taking a Hemingway-like pride in his outdoors expertise. He gets lost, wet, near-frozen; a Hemingway who shoots himself in the foot. In something close to self-pity, he finally reaches the lit kitchen window through which he sees his wife--a near-widow, did she but realize--obliviously chatting on the telephone.

He won't let her realize; a large silence has come over them. Rather than talk to her, he prefers to chop wood, try to hang out with the men at the hardware store and warm himself with his own wool-gathered images. She waits in bed for him; he starts to tell her of an incident during the day, forgets what he is saying, goes to dream in the bathroom. The marriage is not so much shattering as evaporating.

Henry has his good moments as a kind of holy fool. There is a passage where he makes his way into an auction tent with a container of coffee, a doughnut and a prospectus; all three in peril as he teeters his chair on the hummocky ground. Installed, he feels safe, a real person: Nobody will disturb him or question the congruity of his being there.

A little insecurity goes a long way, though; especially in view of Henry's overcompensating efforts to be expert and at macho ease with guns, axes, fishing rods and the locals. More Catholic than the Pope, we may think, or perhaps: more hunnish than Attila. The ironies are fine but Mamet is not simply being ironic. He is, in fact, as uneasy as his characters; it is an unease that lies at the heart of his distinctive style.

Mamet's writing is infused with a poetry that manages to be simultaneously hard-boiled and delicate. The two extremes sound against each other with a striking but sometimes disconcerting hollow in the middle. He has three finely gliding wheels and lacks a fourth. Whoosh! we go, and sometimes: Bump! The bump is intentional but not always under control.

Too close to the author, perhaps, Henry's bumpiness--woodsman to winsome and back--can evoke mild carsickness. The book's best moments come when the author goes directly to some of the other villagers and tells their fragments of story. Mamet's gift for the awkward poetry of real speech shines as an old man recalls Charlie Taggart, who knew not only what the weather was going to do but how birds and deer and fish would respond to it:

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