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From Barnes & NobleAn Uncommon Kingdom
In his new novel, The Fall of the Year, Harold Frank Mosher returns to Kingdom Common, an isolated and mysterious land on the border of Vermont and Canada. His young narrator, Frank Bennett, is also returning; newly graduated from the state university, he plans to spend the summer of 1999 in his hometown. Frank will prepare for Catholic seminary while staying with Father George, who adopted him when he was a child.
Father George is a man who preaches of the heavens while remaining very much in the world. An "unorthodox priest, the greatest scholar and third baseman in Kingdom Common," he is "always getting mad at God and then apologizing to Him." Aside from settling family quarrels and loaning money (earned in his whiskey-smuggling days, before his conversion) to the needy, the Father also works on his "Short History of Kingdom Common," an ever-expanding manuscript of several thousand pages.
The Fall of the Year can be understood as Frank Bennett's attempt to continue his adoptive father's task. The novel's chapters resemble pieces of history, meditations, eccentric character sketches. They could stand alone, yet serve, as a whole, to populate and characterize the landscape. In many ways, the novel resembles Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; what's more, it doesn't suffer in the comparison. Here, we're treated to tales ranging from that of Foster Boy Dufresne—the Town Idiot Savant, who wins big at bingo and claims God should provide him "a young widow, all tanned from the Holy Land sunshine"—to that of Sylvie and Marie Bonhomme, sisters who disappeared with "a secret recipe known only to them, and once used to bake bread for the Last Supper."
After the sisters' disappearance, their memorial stones continue to fill the air with the smell of baking bread; this is remarkable, yet not completely surprising, for unusual happenings are familiar to Kingdom Common. This magical quality is best displayed in a chapter involving a traveling circus, and another describing a mind reader. The very nature of the town, it seems, threatens to outdo those who seek to amaze. "Mr. Mentality" is especially drained; he complains of "riprap"—insignificant details of past times that clutter his mind and leave him unable to remember names, or to follow simple directions. He's beset by forgetfulness, which, he admits, "when you're a mentalist by trade, is a crying shame."
Part of what mentalists and mountebanks must contend with is the landscape itself, caught in the richness of the novel's prose:
The roadside ditches...were pink and purple with wild lupines.... The new leaves on the hardwoods were still more yellow than green, and the sunlight fell through the foliage. Drifting down the trail...at intervals of about thirty seconds came a progression of brilliant yellow-and-black tiger swallowtail butterflies. The brook trout rose readily to whatever flies I tossed into the stream, splashing right up to my feet to get at them.The world breathes and shifts; everywhere, in fact, the descriptive language surprises and provokes. A tattered evening gown is "mended by a safety pin as big as a bass plug"; a fire eater makes "a charred noise, like a burning log collapsing into its own coals."
Kingdom Common's citizens are also unpredictable. Chief among them is Louivia DeBanville, the fortune teller, whose cheeks are "rouged like an embalmed corpse's, with a compound she prepared herself from a vein of red hematite high on Little Quebec Mountain." She knows all of the town's secrets, and reveals them with the maximum amount of drama, usually to her own advantage. An avowed enemy of God, Louivia has an adversarial relationship with Father George that is hilarious, and defines them both; at times, it even seems to betray a heat beyond friendly respect.
Father George's manuscript (excerpted in chapter headings) readily admits that outsiders "have found Kingdom Common, at least at first, to be a hostile place." And if The Fall of the Year has a weakness, it may be found in its treatment of minority characters—not so much because they are mistreated by townspeople, but because their characterization veers so close to stereotype. The fascinating Dr. Sam Rong, for instance, is often reduced to delivering fortune-cookie wisdom, and speaking like Charlie Chan. ("Dress all up like funeral, sing sad song, listen fella in black nightgown talk talk talk, not say nothing. Church big fat bore.") Ed Handsome Lake, an Abenaki Indian, is introduced only to question "whether a man or government can own a wild mountain or lake."
Yet it's difficult to conceive of a book where a narrator's love for his fellow characters, and his world, is more palpable. That this sentiment never strays into sentimentality is due to Frank's good-natured humor, strong sense of wonder, and pure storytelling ability. His relationship with Father George is at the heart of his story; they are bound not by blood, but by deep affection and shared sensibility. As the old priest's health fails, Frank's plan to begin at the seminary becomes increasingly tentative. "The days when a priest could play ball, fish, and hunt are drawing to a close," Father George warns him. Furthermore, romances past and present complicate the plot, implicating both men and making the narrative fork and twist in a fashion only possible in Kingdom Common. In the end, Frank Bennett, "a connoisseur of strange people," is left to attempt connecting them all. The joy he passes on to his readers is ample evidence of his great success.
Peter Rock is the author of the novels Carnival Wolves and This Is the Place. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he now lives in Philadelphia. His email address is email@example.com.
About the Author
Howard Frank Mosher is the author of North Country: A Personal Journey Through the Badland and six novels, including A Stranger in the Kingdom (winner of the 1991 New England Book Award for fiction), Northern Borders, and Where the Rivers Flow North. He lives in Vermont.