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Jonathan Ruppin
Jonathan Ruppin

Revolutionary Road
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Winter's Bone
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Wise Blood
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Foyles Curates: Vestiges of Frontier Spirit

Novels of suburbia and small towns were for a long time a staple of British literature, but for a decade or two have found themselves, with occasional exceptions, trapped in a cul-de-sac of bourgeois ennui. But America’s broader landscapes allow for something less parochial, leaving the grit and glamour to New York and the West Coast. Sprawling suburban grids and small towns surrounded by vast tracts of maize and wheat are home to those last vestiges of the frontier spirit represented by Upton Sinclair, Willa Cather and Frank Norris.

          This is where Thoreau’s masses have long lived their ‘lives of quiet desperation’, most memorably in Updike’s Rabbit sequence, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy and the Wheelers of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. This is an America where the Depression of the thirties has never quite lifted, where the humour is wry and where that frontier spirit is a harsh, throat-burning liquor filtered through the charred remains of the American Dream.

          Amongst such barrenness it is easy to understand the allure of religion – dignity can be retained through humility in the eyes of God. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a potent illustration of this, and the darker side of such convictions is the engine of many powerful works. Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood has a former serviceman challenge the church’s demand for obedience with his founding of The Church without Christ, a stand-off whose culmination could only ever be bloody.

          Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout is a secular take on this righteous bigotry, a profoundly shocking account of a society’s eternal willingness to turn a blind eye. Here humanity’s potential for psychopathy is exemplified by a white storekeeper’s callous murder of a black man, which polarises a community according to individual beliefs in the ethical boundaries of the rule of law.

          This assumption – that it is the birth-right of some to hold dominion over others – is the subject of Ron Rash’s Serena (due in paperback in July). It opens with Pemberton, who runs a logging empire in the Appalachian mountains, killing in cold blood the angry father of a girl he has made pregnant. Not only does he escape justice, the girl eventually must turn to him for employment, knowing that his workers accept the risk of maiming and death in return for the scarce privilege of work. The book has a thematic debt to Macbeth, – Pemberton’s wife, whose ruthlessness in dispatching any who stand in their way, makes her Shakespearean counterpart seem lily-livered by comparison.

          Like any capitalist democracy, America’s prefers her underclass out of sight; Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone sheds light on the unseen side of the social divide. In a rural community dependent on crystal meth, whose serotonin bliss and trading value sustain meagre lives, a pinch-faced teen demands her right to parenting: think a rugged Annie Proulx, stripped of whimsy.

          Some writers offer the comfort of simple companionship. In James Wilcox’s Modern Baptists, Bobby Pickens is the socially impotent mark only a blown fuse away from the absurd rage of A Confederacy of DuncesIgnatius C Reilly. In taking in his reprobate half-brother, he is at least shaken from his acquiescence to mundanity.

          This comforting notion of fellowship has perhaps its most exquisite rendering in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. The spartan functionality of the prose gives a profundity to this story of a pregnant teenager taken in by two taciturn farmhands. It is a book that confirms that no matter how much we seek to impose our will upon the world, through the structure of our society and our industry, we have an ineluctable part in nature’s whole.



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