The Mammoth Cheese
by Sheri Holman
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
448 pages, 2003
As Cheesy as it Gets
Reviewed by David Abrams
Forget the fact that Sheri Holman's new novel has one of the worst -- if not the worst -- cover designs ever to curse a dustjacket (behind the title and author's name, there's an American flag sprayed with what looks like powdered cheese dust).
Ignore the fact that its title, The Mammoth Cheese, sounds like a kid's book or a motivational guide for the office-cubicle rat race.
Set all those handicaps aside and enter Holman's world, for what lies between the execrable covers and beneath the silly title is nothing less than superb storytelling, the kind that makes you want to forsake all other obligations of daily life and just keep reading until your eyes feel like sandpaper.
The Mammoth Cheese is a novel that attempts much and succeeds at every turn. The plot sprawls and the characters teem, making this a literary version of an epic Cecil B. DeMille movie. Like the legendary film director, Holman never loses sight of her characters, even as they move across a large canvas which in this book include forays into presidential campaigns, dairy farming, teenage rebellion, multiple births, Thomas Jefferson, second chances at love, and the hubris of Episcopalian ministers.
Readers expecting something along the lines of Holman's previous novels -- A Stolen Tongue and The Dress Lodger -- will be in for a bit of a surprise. While her other books plunged us into the worlds of a 15th-century pilgrimage to Egypt and 19th-century prostitution in England, The Mammoth Cheese is a thoroughly modern tale with folks who could be your friends and neighbors with amplified personalities. Holman applies the same industrious research and care with wordsmithery here as she did when writing about a saint's missing body parts (A Stolen Tongue) or a whore trying to survive a cholera plague and bodysnatchers (The Dress Lodger).
On the surface, The Mammoth Cheese's plot is complicated and tangled, but once you're inside the book and humming through the pages, it's apparent that Holman has produced something akin to a Norman Rockwell painting -- there's a lot going on within the frame, but one message leaps out like a craggy New England face beaming over a Thanksgiving dinner. For Holman, that point is this: There was still a place in the world for those who did things the right way, the old-fashioned way. As mass media and hyper-technology threaten to swallow the web-wide world, there is still room for the simple pleasures in life -- like milking a cow or delivering a 1,200-pound wheel of cheese to the White House. Through it all, America -- with all her beauty and blemishes -- is touted as a place that's "infinitely perfectible."
As the book opens, Manda Frank has just given birth to 11 babies, the product of a fertility treatment urged on her by the town's overly-ambitious Episcopal priest, Leland Vaughn. The babies range in weight from 2 pounds, 8 ounces, all the way down to the smallest at 16 ounces, "a size, Manda thought, more fitting for a Coke than a baby." On hand to congratulate the new, exhausted mother is presidential hopeful Governor Adams Brooke, a candidate who claims to be of the people and for the people. One of the planks in his platform is the Family Matters Act, which promises "an abolition of the estate tax on small farms, but beyond that, a one-time government bailout of farms earning less than $250,000 a year."
That's good news to the good folks of Three Chimneys, Virginia -- population 781 (792, if you count the just-born Frank Eleven babies). The town has been looking for something to lift it from economic doldrums. Pastor Vaughn's plan for national notoriety includes the record-setting multiple birth and the manufacture of a giant hunk of cheese. The first idea goes sour when the babies start dying even before Manda Frank leaves the hospital. The second publicity stunt is based on an actual event in history when a farmer presented his homemade cheddary gift to President Thomas Jefferson.
Leland comes up with the idea of sending President Brooke a Mammoth Cheese after he's elected as a way of thanking him for all he's done for the common man in America, recalling the spirit of the Jeffersonian cheese: "It wasn't about any one farmer. The entire community brought their day's milking. They came together like a family and worked in service of a single ideal. Medicine and science have brought nothing but tragedy to this town. But -- history. History is something Three Chimneys understands."
His son, August, has his doubts about the project. As a history buff who likes to dress up as Jefferson and entertain crowds with his oratories, August knows the truth behind the original cheese:
He could have said that the first Mammoth Cheese became a nationwide joke. ... Or that along the way, the cheese generated maggots at its core, and most of it had to be cut away, dumped into the Potomac. Or he might have declared honestly and with great heaviness of heart that this was a country wherein anything was possible, that America loved a large and pointless gesture.
The new Mammoth Cheese is being made by single mother and struggling farmer Margaret Prickett whose teenage daughter Polly is writing her own declaration of independence -- scorning her mother's old-fashioned ideals and dangerously flirting with her history teacher who fills her head with radical politics by day and stalks her by night.
Margaret -- perhaps the most central character in this large cast -- earns our sympathy as a woman torn between wanting her daughter's love, keeping her dairy farm alive, and holding fast to the simple ways of living (she keeps her TV in a closet and only brings it out on special occasions).
She was raised on homemade jonquil-colored Jersey butter and crumbly sharp Jersey cheese that her great-grandparents had given names like Manassas Gold and Wilderness Cheddar. She had been taught at her grandfather's knee how to preserve calves' stomachs at the dark of the moon and how to tell, almost by smell, the exact greenish moment that curd separates from whey, and if she'd become almost Confucian in her fealty to her ancestors' ways, then so be it. There were some things in life worth preserving.
There are grave lessons to be learned by all these characters and Holman deftly juggles the converging plot lines as the book reaches a climax which in other hands would have strained credulity.
"Jefferson believed in the unlimited potential of our country," Margaret says at one point. Yes, and America is also a place where a writer with Holman's mammoth talent can produce such a fine book as this. | September 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.