Thursday, February 26, 2015

the last book I read

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.

Larry Cook is an Iowa farmer, who's built up and expanded the farm he inherited from his father and grandfather by some shrewd acquisitions of neighbouring farmland from those who didn't share his work ethic or his nose for business.

Needless to say keeping on top of this sort of operation requires day-to-day dedication, and moreover a supporting team who will take care of the administrative duties like washing clothes, keeping the house clean, cooking dinner, looking after the kids, helping out with the harvest when necessary. This duty falls first on the wife and thereafter on the children and their spouses, those who choose to stay in the vicinity anyway.

In Larry's case his wife died 20-odd years ago, nominally of cancer but presumably at least partly of exhaustion. Since then the burden of domestic tasks has fallen mostly to Larry's two oldest daughters Ginny and Rose, and the burden of helping out with farm activities to their respective spouses Ty and Pete, the youngest daughter, Caroline, having escaped to a career as a lawyer in nearby Des Moines.

At a party thrown by a neighbouring farmer, Larry springs a bit of a surprise - he's effectively retiring, and has had legal documents drawn up to transfer ownership of the farm and all its assets jointly to the three sisters. Ginny and Rose, after a bit of thought, accept, while Caroline, possibly suspicious of her father's motives, possibly just reluctant to be drawn back into day-to-day farm business, is a bit more hesitant. At this point Larry impulsively cuts her out of the deal and splits the assets equally between Ginny and Rose instead.

From this point things start to unravel fairly quickly. Larry finds himself a bit aimless without the day-to-day concerns of keeping the farm afloat and quickly enters a spiral of increasingly drunken and eccentric behaviour. Meanwhile Jess Clark, the son of Harold Clark, the farmer next door, returns from a long exile which began when he was drafted into the Vietnam War, and soon embarks on a brief affair with Ginny. Ty, who has shouldered most of the responsibility for the running of the farm, takes out a large and risky loan to finance setting up a pig-breeding operation and doing all the necessary construction.

Things get worse. Larry has a change of mind about the handover, and, with some help from Caroline (with whom he has quickly effected a reconciliation) brings a legal action to try and have the handover annulled. Rose has a heart-to-heart with Ginny wherein she reveals that Larry abused her sexually when she was younger, and she strongly suspects that he abused Ginny as well, though Ginny claims to have no recollection of it. Ginny's involvement with Jess having petered out, Rose starts sleeping with Jess, and Pete, having been clued in by Rose both to the childhood abuse and the present-day affair, drunkenly drives his truck into a lake and drowns. Larry, increasingly mentally unstable, has a very public meltdown at another community gathering, and eventually moves out to go and stay with the Clarks up the road. On returning to her childhood bedroom to do some tidying up after his departure, Ginny experiences a rush of repressed memories and realises that Rose was right and Larry had been abusing her, too.

Ginny finds living with Ty's constant absences on the farm and Rose's relationship with Jess increasingly intolerable, and eventually tensions rise to a point where Ginny decides that she has to get away. She takes a job as a waitress in a nearby town and lives in happy ignorance of events at the farm for a couple of years, until eventually both Ty and Rose call on her, Ty to tell her he's selling up and moving to Texas to start a new life and wants a divorce, and Rose to tell her that her breast cancer has returned and that she's in hospital. By this point Larry has also died of a heart attack.

So Ginny returns to the farm to look after Rose's two daughters while Rose is in hospital, where she eventually dies. The farm and all the buildings and their contents are to be sold to pay off debts, so Caroline and Ginny meet at the farmhouse to attempt to divvy up some family possessions, immediately have an argument and go their separate ways, Caroline back to Des Moines and Ginny back to her waitressing job, this time with Rose's two daughters in tow.

And that's it. Reading that back it all sounds like it's set in Grimsville, Iowa, and I suppose it is in that a whole relentless load of trouble is shovelled onto the central characters, and everyone is left in a state of either death, divorce or exile at the end. That it doesn't feel as depressing as it ought to is a testament to Smiley's skill as a writer - the details of the vastness of the Iowan landscape, the intricate details of family relationships and the interaction with the tight-knit local community where everyone knows everyone else's business are so fascinating that the fact that everyone's lives are going to shit around their ears is almost incidental.

The other thing about A Thousand Acres is that it's clearly based on the King Lear story (as in, you know, Shakespeare and that). As this New York Times review says, that poses a difficulty in that you want to acknowledge it, while at the same time not getting into some trainspottery listing of similarities and differences at the expense of just enjoying the novel. As it happens I was in the fairly happy position of not being especially familiar with the play (I don't think I've ever seen it on either stage or screen), so beyond the obvious parallels of the principal characters' names (Larry, Ginny, Rose, Caroline versus Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia) and the knowledge that it's a tragedy (and so things were unlikely to end well for all concerned) I didn't have the background knowledge to do the comparisons and was able to just immerse myself in the story.

A Thousand Acres won two of the heavyweight American fiction awards when it was published in 1991, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. My brief lists for these go: 1953, 1961, 1981, 1985, 1992, 1996, 2003, 2007 and 1991, 2000, 2002 respectively. For what it's worth I thought it was exceptionally good and - just a thought - if you're looking for your Great American Novel you could do worse than start here.

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