We are a nation of people trying to escape yesterday. We move from the city to the suburbs and then, if we have any remaining energy, to the country. We need to "get away from it all" and by uprooting ourselves in one place, then replanting in another, we truly believe we can leave "it" all behind.
Despite the shiny convenience of planes, trains and automobiles, we're really no different than our great-great-great-great-grandfathers, the men who slipped west into the tangled wilderness, yearning to make their destiny manifest. They may have moved along at a comparable snail's pace with their oxen and heavy mud-mired carts and been in constant need of a bath, but they were just like the modern overstressed soul who moves from Manhattan to Montana, hungrily gulping for fresh air and praying for the solace of open spaces.
Jeffrey Lent has written a novel set in 1838 whose characters are strikingly similar to today's man in the mirror. Lost Nation is literature for our own floundering, dissatisfied country. Each of us can find a piece of our soul on these pages.
Lost Nation 's main character is a middle-aged man named Blood. He is not only loaded down with the baggage of a name that carries Christ-like weight, but he's also burdened with the memory of one afternoon's tragedy: his wife and son were killed in a boating accident while he was in the city sleeping with a prostitute. This and an even darker secret are enough to drive him into the wilderness of New Hampshire, to a place which today is most likely paved with parking lots and billboards for 79-cent hamburgers.
This was the Wild West of the 1830s, territory (spiritual and literal) instantly familiar to readers of James Fenimore Cooper. Lent (author of the acclaimed Civil War era novel In the Fall) treads deeply in Deerslayer footsteps here in Lost Nation . We wouldn't be surprised to see Natty Bumppo or Chingachgook spring from behind a tree at any moment.
As the novel opens, Blood is walking along a road (there's always the temptation to say "Blood is running "), accompanied by a 16-year-old prostitute named Sally. Blood has bought Sally from her mother, another whore he has known for years. Sally is bound like a captive as she walks along with Blood, but the two soon form a friendship which will eventually warm to something resembling romance.
Yet, it's hard to recognize any sort of romance beneath the grimy lives these characters lead -- lives full of passionless sex, sudden violence, festering wounds, marauding Indians and mob justice. Blood and Sally eventually settle in the small community of Indian Stream where the men are shifty-eyed and the women are hard-hearted.
Blood sets up a tavern and soon he's pouring rum in the front room while Sally is turning tricks in the back. All the while, he maintains a cautious air -- distrusting the future and haunted by his past.
He has every right to be on edge. This is a scary nation whose central authority is so far distant -- Washington, D.C. -- that it might as well be the moon. Settlers in this wilderness take the law into their own dirt-stained hands since the nearest sheriff is a several-days' ride away. Tension shivers the land like the wind flutters the leaves on a tree.
As one fur trader tells Blood, "It's a rough country up there. There idn't no law but enough people so there's problems. So mostly they solve their own. There's all kinds but each one's ill-disposed to somebody they don't know. They might be glad to see your goods but that don't mean they'll welcome you."
The action of the novel moves forward like falling dominoes, one event -- an accidental shooting of an Indian -- triggers larger and graver events. At the center of it all stands Blood who, if we think about it too hard, is really a despicable character. He whores, he adulterates, he kills, he supplies unstable men with rum, he stands idle as riot breaks out. Yet, we are sympathetic to his plight. Lent has made Blood a man who holds sway over the reader. He drives himself on a quest for redemption and we're pulled right along, sucked into the wake of his self-loathing.
Lent has not set out to write merely a ripping yarn or a 19th-century potboiler. His aim is much higher and broader: he wants to write an epic morality tale -- more Dostoevsky than Cooper. If you close one eye and squint with the other, it's possible to see Cormac McCarthy on the page, too.
This is grand, gritty, gory writing which feels like it's arm-wrestling the words into place. Lent's prose is alternately lean and obese. Even while cleaving to a McCarthyesque directness, Lost Nation can stray into some long, swollen sentences which would have made Fenimore Cooper blanch. In his weaker moments, Lent sometimes feels compelled to state the obvious, rather than holding back to let the meaning hover just below the words.
Don't get me wrong: there are some fine sentences in here. The country was teeming with gathering madness is one nice, compact string of words. And there are some longer ones where the space between the first letter and the last period is packed tight as too much powder down the mouth of a cannon:
The air moved but slightly and they could smell smoke upon it, not the faint autumnal scent of burning that sunlight stirred from dying leaves but a keen series of twisted ropes of smoke, those smells not the clear sweetness of burning wood but the bitter rank odor of houses burning, barns -- of clothing, foodstuffs, furniture shellacs and varnishes, feather-bed tickings, harness leather, the dense scent of burning fodder, of haystacks, of meal or corn -- the burning of human works.
In spite of the occasional lumbering, burdensome sentence, Lost Nation builds to a literally explosive climax, a standoff between Blood and a mob of his neighbors which takes on the proportions of a bloody fifth-act scene from Shakespeare.
In the end, when all is said and done and the corpses have cooled, Lost Nation serves as a cautionary tale for the restless, haunted Blood in all of us. We can fool ourselves into thinking we've escaped to pastoral FenimoreCooperLand (Next Exit, 2 miles), but there will come the day when past misdeeds creep up behind us on soft moccasin feet and cleave our skull with the sharp edge of accountability.
Lost Nation reminds us that even today our lives can be dark as forests and tangled with undergrowth. | August 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.