Glenn Arbery’s “Bearings and Distances” shuttles back and forth between two eras, weaving, careening, towards an inexorable revelation of truth. The plot is rich and complex, and its world is both fertile and elusive in meaning, expanding through time and culture, expressing a deeply Catholic view of the cosmos.
Bearings and Distances, by Glenn Arbery (544 pages, Wiseblood Books, 2015)
In Bearings and Distances, a first novel by the long-time professor of literature who is currently president of Wyoming Catholic College, I encountered the South as I knew it, as it shaped me emotionally, imaginatively, and socially from early childhood. My sense of history and time, of beauty and grace, of horror and terror are all imprinted with this almost-living entity that cannot be dismissed as in the past. Dr. Arbery’s South is neither a romance nor a caricature. Both are unnecessary since the reality of the South integrates far more of both than conventional, desiccated literary and visual portrayals can extract.
At the same time the book is much more than regional culture. It reaches far below, beyond, and above the South. Its fleshy, almost womb-like world—densely real and surreal—is both fertile and elusive in meaning, expanding through time and culture and expressing a deeply Catholic view of the cosmos. Essential veins in its cosmic uterine endometrium are the fertility cults of ancient Uruk, the Hindu Maia, and Greek mythology. It is steeped in allusions to literature from Homer to the postmodern present. More immediate as backdrop to the plot is the legacy of the Confederate South and its racial aftermath in Gallatin, Georgia, the fictional location of the main events; closer yet, the summer of 1969—the past which isn’t even past during the summer of 2009, the primary setting. The book shuttles back and forth between the two eras, weaving, careening, towards an inexorable revelation of truth, truth of past decisions and actions and their calamitous, not-to-be-denied consequences in the present. The innocent are pulled in with the guilty in the violence sparked by revelation.
For Braxton Forrest, perpetual lothario, former high-school football star, professor, and sometime celebrity academic at a college in New Hampshire, his and his forebears’ hefty share of the debt for racial-sexual sin comes due with a vengeance forty years after the summer of the Moonwalk, the Manson murders, and Woodstock, the summer in which Braxton, fired by his undisciplined passions and by hubris, transgressed both the social-moral code of the South and the universal moral law. At the core of his story is his former lover Hermia Watson, herself triply cored—in body by abortion, in soul by the soulless postmodern ideologies of graduate school, and in metaphysical status by the nightmarish realities she discovers about her horribly compromised bloodlines.
On giddy impulse, she assumes a false identity as Forrest’s elderly relative and induces him to send his daughters to Gallatin for a visit. The crisis that ensues for the hapless girls draws Forrest to Gallatin in search of them, while his wife, deeply wounded by his infidelities and his carelessness in regard to the welfare of his daughters, remains on vacation in Italy. Forrest is slow to track down his daughters, who have been embraced by Gallatin, but is quick to pursue an affair, initiated in transit from Rome, with the protean Maya Davidson. He becomes profoundly uneasy when he realizes that in a drunken state he has revealed to her buried secrets about his past. From this point on he is troubled by progressively surfacing memories and by dreams of the Furies. In Gallatin, he encounters and reconnects with classmates Chick Lee (a gem of a character) and Tricia Davis from his high school, people to whom he was an icon and ideal, but whose feelings he had never considered as he barreled along in the grip of his passions. Goaded by Maya’s teasing and prodding about his past, he is forced to confront his explosive, murderous temper and the memory of his affair with Marilyn Harkins, a black woman of his own age, whose sexuality is vividly and lushly described. Forrest’s memory of Marilyn is wrapped in layers of denial, exploitation, and taboo. Soon memories of his summer job on a surveying crew, buried even deeper, spurt up as well. He tracks down the now-aged leader of the crew and discovers more, moving ever closer to the unvarnished truth about his own role in life-shattering past events. A final confrontation in several parts results in irreversible damage and opens the possibility of either redemption or continued self-indulgent destruction.
Dr. Arbery’s writing is rich and demanding; it tracks in many directions: at times lyrically poetic, sometimes haunting, frequently humorous, and most of all pithy and penetrating. Words and phrases are molded with a chewy, substantive plasticity: Patricia Davis’s “left hand with its big diamond kept clenching as though she were wadding Forrest into a spitball.” Mrs. Gant, the old black woman in a big hat who “limped and called and waved her way with big-hipped aplomb” (hips are a presence in Dr. Arbery’s literary imagination) into church. Figures of speech are doorways into the age-old dimensions of human instinct: Marilyn Harkins’ rhythmic hips move, “as though she had just come walking out of Uruk.” In addition, Dr. Arbery nails the syntax and cadences of Black speech in the era before rap and the idioms and attitudes of hardscrabble Georgia. Some of his scenes are just plain hilarious, such as the episode in Chick Lee’s office in which his gentlemanly instinct to ease Hermia’s great distress is virtually electrocuted by her disclosures of the unmentionable.
The plot is rich, complex to the point of confusion, in part because it integrates two eras and therefore works simultaneously backward and forward, but also in part because some contortions are introduced to create juicy but unlikely scenarios. Would an infamous, widely accessed town prostitute who has retained much of her youthful beauty really return after three decades and remain unrecognized? Would a child whose father and grandfather were the same man and whose ancestors on the mother’s side for three generations shared the same very limited gene pool thrive, untouched by genetic abnormalities? Nonetheless, though these situations border on preposterous, in this novel they are accepted by the reader as avatars of monstrous evils the South permitted, protected.
There is more to say about Dr. Arbery’s writing than is possible here. Most significant characters are three-dimensional and absorbing, even while at least one exists on the strange metaphysical boundary between reality and illusion. Dr. Arbery truly seems to despise no man or woman, though he knows the interior worlds of the former better than those of the latter. Tony Wright is introduced to us, as in an intercessory prayer, as admirably handsome and hardworking, completely untouched by self-pity in spite of his wretched circumstances. We discover he is eaten up by envy and race hatred, but the author’s initial advocacy softens the reader’s condemnation. The pharisaical Patricia Lee and the stodgy, voyeuristic Judah Davis, both easy targets, are nonetheless drawn not with crushing satire but with a generous humor. Hermia Watson, a genuine if soft-shelled entry in the pantheon of freaks in Southern literature, is as appealingly pathetic as she is toxic. The least convincing character, Forrest’s Catholic wife Marisa, is one absolutely essential to the story. Her name is the first word in the text proper. Although she appears relatively little in the story, her refusal to give up on Forrest is essential to his redemption and indeed, eventually, to his survival. Our main insight into her inner life is an email she sends a friend. It is inadequate as a key to a woman who has survived the fiery Gehenna of two decades with a promiscuous scoundrel. One wishes for a fuller development of her persona, though this would introduce its own set of difficulties. One might also wish for an old black woman who is developed beyond the familiar, useful, and immensely appealing trope of good-hearted, Bible-steeped prophetess and oral historian.
Two final observations: For all its gravity and range the book was, I reiterate, very entertaining and very funny, not with a bitter or whimsical humor but with a humane and compassionate understanding. Second, the metaphor of surveying the land is central (Dr. Arbery’s word) to the book. Descriptions of equipment and procedures are complex and precise, and require multiple re-readings for those of us who’ve never practiced the craft. But the essence of the countryside is immediately accessible to those who have known and walked the land—slow orange-brown rivers ripe in the heat of July, weeds and muddy pine scrub lined with rotten fence posts and broken barbed-wire, mined with yellow-jacket nests and poisonous snakes. Dr. Arbery makes real with unsentimental love this terrain through evocation of sound, sight, smell, hearing, and even touch, that sense difficult to conjure with words. From this land is born the body, blood, and soul of the South, and the land itself participates in the encounter with conscience, the mark of divinity.
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