GENE WOLFE, himself squarely among our great writers, once said that great writers don't simply do something better than others, they do something that no one else can do at all.
I look at this shelf of books beside my desk and almost expect the shelf, the floor, the foundation, perhaps even the fundament of Earth itself, to give beneath the weight of what is there: so many lives, so much history and anticipation, so many foreign and familiar worlds caught up in there. No, not caught -- suspended. Held lovingly. And truth to tell, I might just as well expect shelf, room and house to rise into the air, with these books so like clouds or bolls of cottony wind. For it's lightness, not weight, that Arkansas novelist Donald Harington catches up in his nets: the fragility of our lives, the fine lines we forever dodge between, the joy that breaks from our sorrow.
There are 13 of those books on the shelf, 13 Donald Haringtons, reissued by the Toby Press and now capped by a new novel, "Farther Along."
First, though, a disclaimer. I am a tremendous admirer of Harington's work, a fact you might well surmise from the cover of "Farther Along," whereupon squats a quote from one of my columns for the Boston Globe: "Harington's books are of a piece -- the quirkiest, most original body of work in contemporary U.S. letters." For many years now, I've eagerly read Harington, written about him, passed his books along, done everything but collar strangers on the street to tell them about him. "The Choiring of the Trees" is, quite simply, one of the finest novels I've ever read. "With," a personal favorite, begins with a child's sexual abduction, only to become one of the most world-embracing, life-affirming books I know.
Harington has worked at a remove both aesthetically and geographically from the literary establishment, in the nature of true genius giving little regard to mainstream, academic or commercial concerns, quietly pursuing his personal vision of an America singing through its many wounds. So when I collar that stranger on the street, when I bring up Harington's name even among avid readers, chances are there's little recognition. He is, as fellow novelist Fred Chappell has called him, "an undiscovered continent." Sadly -- for us all.
It's difficult to describe what sets Harington's work apart. Superficial aspects come easily to mind: rural Ozark setting, eccentric characters, conflation of history and present lives, fanciful though forever demotic language, careening points of view, an abundant sense of spiritual presence. But the work seems finally in some manner different at heart, as though it had issued from another time, another place. Harington is hooked into the deepest traditions of storytelling, dipping his buckets directly into the well it all comes from, pursuing a literature dedicated not to documentation or self-expression, but to fascination, to lifting us out of ourselves and the dailiness of our lives -- to making our world again wondrous and large.
In "Farther Along," for instance, we have a man leaving city and career behind to live in a cave like the prehistoric Ozark bluff dwellers, complete with deerskin robe and atlatl; a woman who may or not be a woman of the same name who died long ago; a mummified man in a glass case; another whose fingers each have lives, opinions and voices of their own; and, in the middle chapters, a narrator that may be either a ghost or an internal voice -- but that we suspect is the spirit of place often evoked in Harington's work.
Add unheralded shifts in point of view, long back stories, tasty curlicues of digression and you have something quite aside from a quick, serviceable read. Harington's reach is long; he refuses to simplify, wants to include, in every sentence, every fragment of dialogue, every paragraph and anecdote, as much of the world's marvelous complexity and abundance as possible. Yet he does not challenge his readers so much as repeatedly invite them to sit a spell and listen along with him.
"I lived for almost two months before the first wave of excruciating loneliness attacked me. . . . The imagined past is always more lost and irreplaceable than the real past. And I had no future. All I had was now, and now was a long, unchanging, lonely moment. If, as someone said, the moment Now exhales the past and inhales the future, then I had chronic emphysema. A winding path led to my place among the rocks, a cave which was a dead end, but I had neither the path nor the cave but the edge of both."