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In Pinelight: A Novel

In Pinelight: A Novel

5.0 1
by Thomas Rayfiel

As the elderly hero of Thomas Rayfiel’s daring new novel, In Pinelight, sits in an old folks home responding to the questions of an unseen interrogator, the fragments he supplies form the portrait of a man’s life in upstate New York. Losses, loves, destructive family relationships, sexual entanglements, and moments of mystical awareness filter


As the elderly hero of Thomas Rayfiel’s daring new novel, In Pinelight, sits in an old folks home responding to the questions of an unseen interrogator, the fragments he supplies form the portrait of a man’s life in upstate New York. Losses, loves, destructive family relationships, sexual entanglements, and moments of mystical awareness filter through the seeming minutiae of small-town gossip to confront the reader with their cumulative power.

In Pinelight stirs the emotions both by its formal virtuosity and by the precision with which the narrator is able to reveal human psychology. Rayfiel seeks to capture the essence of historical forces and to illuminate the inescapable truths we would rather not see.


Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Rayfiel's latest (Time Among the Dead), an unnamed man sits in a retirement home answering the questions of an unnamed interviewer. We never hear directly from the interviewer but learn that he is someone from the speaker's past. Over the course of the interview, the story of Conklingville, a town now flooded beneath a lake, emerges. Rayfiel breathes life into the residents of the town using thoughtful, minimally punctuated prose. From birth to death to strange rebirth as a lakeside community, the narrator stumbles through his shattered memories of this town, returning again and again to an image of someone spreading ashes over the lake from a boat. Each time we are told it is someone else's funeral. The novel ultimately explores the development and abandonment of our collective histories and the eventual depletion of those histories. Rayfiel's experimental language coupled with the enigmatic points in the plot intentionally evoke uncertainty and confusion in the reader. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"In Pinelight is a warm, earnest, moving, and at times feverishly beautiful book...Those who sit down with this one will be richly rewarded." —Bookforum

“An eloquent exploration of life seen through an aging man's eyes.” —Kirkus Reviews, STARRED

“[A] brilliant portrayal of small-town life…. The reader quickly gets immersed in this quaint place…. Ruminations on greed, love, the meaning of life and death, friendship, religion, and even crime are explored in this poignant tale that is reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, or, even better, Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood….delightful and entertaining.” —Library Journal, STARRED

"Everything and nothing is meaningful in a way that makes one man’s life, and his account of it, the sole repository of significance. And to turn that idea into language is Rayfiel’s extraordinary gift." —Star Tribune

Library Journal
★ 09/01/2013
Rayfiel (The Eve Trilogy) sets this brilliant portrayal of small-town life in late 19th-century Conklingville, NY. An unknown interviewer questions Bill, an elderly, lifelong resident now living in a retirement home, whose rambling thoughts and memories seem tangible—they are written in a style free of punctuation except for periods. The reader quickly gets immersed in this quaint place, where the local restaurant is called the "Country Coroner." A lifetime friendship with Claude LeBrun, a Canadian-born local with an innate sense for successfully developing properties, is the central axis from which the various characters in the novel are portrayed. Ruminations on greed, love, the meaning of life and death, friendship, religion, and even crime are explored in this poignant tale that is reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, or, even better, Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood. VERDICT This delightful and entertaining look at provincial life tells a story with quiet power and is a definite recommendation for book-discussion groups.—Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-09-01
The mysteries of life in a small town are beautifully told through the monologue of an old man's musings. Rayfiel has created a poetic world through William, his narrator, who answers questions put to him by a real or imagined, but unseen, questioner about his life and those around him in Conklingville, a town now buried beneath the deep waters of a hydroelectric dam. William imagines the town below, seen through the shimmering, moving water. Rayfiel builds a narrative around the memory of a damaged man. There is no linear storyline; it jumps and stutters, runs into beautiful thoughts and touches on the ugliness of life. William is a throwback to an earlier time: a handyman and a carter who would rather spend time with horses than people. "A horse will take on any mood whatever you feel inside that's what animals are for they show you what you're feeling," he says. And William is feeling much. His family has suffered tragedy--the disappearance of his sister--and the town itself revolves around several mysteries that bring the edgy side of small-town life to the surface. William tries to connect the dots of wayward clues and memories for the man who is asking him questions offstage. Here, the unknown, the unspoken, is as strong a narrative force as the spoken. This novel is unusual in form but beautiful in delivery. Nothing on the surface is what it seems, including the narrator's vision of God. "See the real book it's not the bible but us maybe we're all together one big book…and He's reading it turning the pages…and we're just words on a page." An eloquent exploration of life seen through an aging man's eyes.

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Read an Excerpt

In Pinelight

A Novel

By Thomas Rayfiel

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2013 Thomas Rayfiel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-5236-6


Mean as ever that's what he used to say about her but who are you? You say I know you well I know a lot of people or did. They're all gone now most of them. You must have been a kid when I saw you last I guess you're all grown up now but grown up from what from who I mean? Where's Rebecca? Rebecca my? No she's not here she left years ago how do you know about? Yes when Mother died he expected her Father he expected Rebecca to take her place to run the household. Five years older than me but Mother dying made her practically a grown-up in his eyes. That's what she objected to all that drudgery. Of course at the time I didn't realize anything no not consciously. I just remember the fights. Once she even threw a plate. He hit her I remember that it stops the conversation that sound. There's this rise of voices back and forth faster and faster you try turning away from it under the covers that's where I was under the covers we shared a bed he and I after Mother died I was too old to be in the same room with Rebecca anymore they go back and forth the voices when it's a fight it's like they intertwine finish each other's sentence but not the way the other one wants the sentence finished. Then there was this meaty sound and. I pretended to be asleep. She didn't leave the next day no it wasn't like that. I think she just didn't want to cook and clean. I pretended to be asleep but you can't close your ears. No she never talked to me about it. All I knew was that Mother was gone and that we couldn't ever have flapjacks again. We didn't talk I was too young she everyone said she was beautiful later after she left like that was some kind of explanation that her beauty took her away. I assume she is. She never came back never sent word by now she'd be but who told you about Rebecca? Local history there is no local history nothing happens here I mean things happen but they don't amount to much that's what Lebrun's wife used to say. She'd complain Nothing ever changes here all of you just sitting around like a bunch of stuffed owls. Stuffed owls that's what she'd call us a bunch of oh she was a live wire.

* * *

You'd ask Lebrun how his wife was and he'd say Mean as ever. What they saw in each other I'll never know. Well apparently he was handsome that's what they say. I'm no judge he was smart I can tell you that. He could make something out of nothing. He knew how to play the system knew there was a system which I didn't not until later. He saw the dam was going to be big. While the rest of us were busy complaining about it or gawking at it the construction I mean Boondoggle or Salvation? that's what Lawrence asked in the Pennysaver in his editorial while we were all asking ourselves that question he went and got himself a job there with the Black River Authority. I remember him in that pickup truck with the writing on the door always on his way somewhere always checking levels. Yes water levels. Well sure we were envious. The paper mill and the glove factory were the only places hiring those days and then he came tooling around town in that Black River Authority pickup but I don't know how it came about he was handsome. To me he just looked like. I think it was all wrapped up with that new truck new job the idea that he maybe had a future don't think women aren't taking that into account they'd be fools not to. In any event I know for a fact his real name was Lebrun. Brown that's what he went by. You say it's a translation yes a translation from truth to falsehood Lebrun was his name he was a Canuck but he didn't have an accent not by the time I met him. How did I know I don't remember I just did Claude Lebrun that was his secret self the one nobody knew except me. Anyway handsome to women it's just another word for money. You say there are handsome men who are poor I don't know about that Ed Mosher I suppose he was handsome but when his father was alive and it looked like he would inherit the hardware store that's when people decided he was handsome later the handsome part just stuck it was a memory. Now Lebrun excuse me Brown was handsome in a forward-looking way full of possibilities or so I recall. It could all be colored by what happened subsequently subsequently yes I know my English three-and-a-half years of high school then I had to leave I had to go to work but Rebecca what on earth are you asking about her for? Of course I know there's a town under there. Conklingville. It was nothing don't let people tell you different I've walked its streets or its street rather that's all it was a wide spot in the road. When they decided to flood the valley no one objected money was hard to come by then. The Army Corps of Engineers did it they dammed up the river and flooded the place but it wasn't much to begin with. You think there are fish swimming through the halls of some underwater palace down there? The church the general store the feedlot. Go to the general store I suppose he did we all did although how you know about that surprises me. Nell owned it she had rooms in back. They were her cousins that's what we called them the girls who lived there. It only occurs to me now that they weren't. Cousins I mean. One was even part Indian but we assumed somehow she was still her cousin I guess we didn't want to know different it was nothing fancy no chandeliers or beaded curtains or anything like that. A dollar. Which was quite a lot in those days. I suppose he did but I don't know I never saw him there. She was careful not to have you see anyone else. Where was Nell from I have no idea she could have been born here or dropped from the moon for all I know. The Indian? Again I have no idea her cousin that's all. How could I tell by her hair of course it was long and black wait Gabrielle or am I imagining? I don't think so. I don't think I could imagine a name like that. So what if it's French I didn't name her anyway she was only part Indian half-breed that's what they called her not Lebrun he never you see that's the kind of remark he would never make he was very proper. I think he acted like that to get away from what people said about Canucks in general that they're unclean and can't control themselves. Especially down there. Can't control themselves down I don't think I ever heard a curse word escape his lips. Why do I think he went to Nell's well everyone did all the young men. He wasn't that different. You're only making him so by singling him out people always seemed to think he was special I didn't I thought he was just like us but more so is that the same as being special? Lawrence in the Pennysaver called him a poet who used bricks and mortar instead of words what do you think that means? Poet. He could barely write. None of them can. The ones that come down. We get their riffraff their leavings. The only poetry he had went into his shirts they were very white he put us to shame in that department shirts trousers appearance in general you could see it in the ladies' eyes. Gabrielle and him why do you ask? You take me for some kind of Peeping Tom? Braided yes a long single braid going all the way down her back all the way down to I could tell you stories but I'm not the kind that does.

* * *

The church the general store the feedlot and houses of course. Just regular houses. None very special. An attorney. First Calvary Baptist at the end of town or the beginning depending on how you approached. No I did not. My father told me a thing or two about that about religion in general well that it's a racket basically. He should know. It took him for everything he had. No we never attended not as a family I suppose I went in once or twice you can't avoid going in. The Reverend there he was typical acting like he knew best like he had some private line to Heaven Father told me all about them. Lebrun well I assume Roman Catholic Saint Anthony's up in Antone but he never talked about it. Religion it's all a scam if you ask me if you live close to the wild the way we do here you don't need a church or a man to introduce you to God. An attorney's office yes. Alice's father. Near the church. Lawyer Breckenridge that was his name. It was an ordinary little town had a stream running in back all little towns did that's why they were built where they were in the first place I don't consider a stream so special yes it was the Black River I suppose but there was nothing river-like about it then these names they come up with no one called it the Black River then it was just a runoff ditch behind the main road. The Army Corps of Engineers they're just a name too it sounds so impressive Army Corps of Engineers but really it was just a scheme that's what most of us thought at the time flood control for the people downstate as if those politicians ever showed any interest in the welfare of ordinary citizens before. Cement was what it was really about Lebrun told me later millions of tons of cement at I don't know how much a pound. Yes he confided in me or boasted I should say it amounts to the same thing got in on the ground floor he did I don't know how. Filthy Canuck they called him behind his back. It was such desperate times if they offered you money for your house you took it. Besides it was the state no one argued they named a price and it was ready cash so. Where Nell went after I have no idea most people moved to Antone after they flooded the town but her I don't think so. Retire no one retires here they put you out to pasture that's what they do and even that's a false picture skin and bones is what you're left with in the end then the bones poke through the skin and have you ever seen a dead horse? But no I have no idea where Nell went or Gabrielle could that really have been her name it sounds so unlikely or any of her cousins for that matter by then I'd met Alice and she wouldn't let me buy a penny's worth of nails from that store she regarded it as the gateway to Hell. Did she save me well I wouldn't be so dramatic. You can't be saved you can't save yourself things simply are that's what life has taught me. At the time yes I thought there were choices but now looking back for example Do you love her? Lebrun asked me once out of the blue. It's funny because we hadn't even discussed her. Alice and I had been very careful we thought no one knew but then Lebrun asked Do you love her? It wasn't even a question I had asked myself and I said Yes which strikes me as funny now. So he knew even before I did that I loved her that I loved Alice so where's the choice in that?

* * *

We didn't tell anyone because of her father. He didn't approve. Represented I don't know what I represented to him what are you talking about? I was courting his daughter and he disliked me didn't think me fine enough for her represented besides he's the one who turned out to be the troublemaker. No it was all so long ago I don't want to talk about it. Oh so you know how do you know? Yes the court case. I didn't think anyone remembered. It broke Emily's heart. I'm sorry Alice. Alice's heart. It happens. I get names mixed up. We hadn't had Emily yet or if we did she was too young to understand. You ask me things you already know the answer to are you trying to catch me out in a lie? Why did he disapprove? Too good for me he thought that she was too good for me but I proved him wrong I provided I made deliveries in weather much worse than this this isn't even snow this isn't the kind of snow we used to have. Brown you mean Lebrun? Yes maybe once or twice but he was far below her in social standing. You see you totally misunderstand. He was a Canuck. Emily I mean Alice had nothing but contempt for his kind. The lines were much more clearly drawn then. Not like today when you pretend nothing matters where you come from or what you look like or how you speak that it's all some Brotherhood of Man. No that's all right it takes me that way just let me. There. I'm fine now. She despised him no that's wrong she didn't notice him enough to despise him not at first. That's a better way to put it. Alice. Men of course it doesn't matter as much with men we can talk to anyone it's all tied up with work yes he steered a few things my way I don't know why because we were friends I guess. But Gabrielle there was no way he could have known about Gabrielle and me I would never have talked to him about that some things are better left yes a single braid didn't I tell you already a black braid of course it swayed all the way down her I remember following it the path trying to follow one in particular those braided paths what would you call them strands? The braids within the braid. Do you think you could get me out of here? I suppose not. It's just that on a day like today I would like to smell the snow yes the snow it's one of those smells that aren't supposed to be that nobody talks about like blood. You don't smell blood sure you do you just don't know you do. Anyway by the time they flooded it town was all stripped. People salvaged things then not like today. Today there's nothing but waste. I took a walk the night before. There was a barricade but no one manning it soldiers there's a job for you in peacetime at least the Army Corps of Engineers what a joke they were all at The Triangle no one was guarding the fence they'd built at taxpayers' expense. Why because I wanted to walk the streets one last time. Well yes I never thought of it that way but since you bring it up I suppose my two loves were living within fifty feet of each other it's not so surprising the world was smaller then but there was also a depth to it that no longer exists because I don't know why because everything's gotten shallower I suppose wider but shallower. I saw him before he saw me he was carrying a lantern we still used kerosene back then. I watched him. You know they say most Canucks are part Indian themselves mixed blood it's the way they walk as if the ground and their feet have something in common very low and snakelike he didn't see me for quite a while so I watched him you can tell when a man is up to something. There were only foundations left wood bricks metal anything useful had been stripped away. He stopped at one building I couldn't tell which what had been there I mean they were just like broken stumps by then like old teeth with a hearth in the middle just a slab of rock he stood there a long time a house it was a house I don't know which one or maybe another store I don't remember it was eighty years ago all right sixty by then but even so what do you care? No not the church or Nell's or the feedlot I'm sure of that some other building it can't possibly have any significance now besides it's not where he was but what he did that I remember he stood there holding his lantern there was no moon and began kicking at the stone like it offended him. This big blackened hearth I remember the light from the lantern swinging back and forth getting kind of herky-jerky him kicking and some dust or dirt or ash flying up. All silently. Well I was surprised because he never displayed anger you see. He was calm. I mean even when he was mad at someone he was still calm the more difficult the situation the more quiet he became it was a characteristic but here where there was nothing but calm not a soul around he was kicking the stone so hard it looked like he was going to break his toe that's when I went over I called to him but he didn't seem to hear me so I grabbed him by the shoulders. Yes a white shirt what funny questions you ask. His eyes were turned back in his head I suppose it was some kind of seizure no there was no smell of alcohol on him no he never touched a drop many of them don't you know. The ones who can't handle it. They swear off completely. Even one sip and they go crazy it's another sign they might have mixed blood Canucks because of course Indians can't drink firewater can't digest it I don't know if that was true in his case but. Then he kind of woke up came to as if nothing had happened all he was concerned about were his new boots had he gotten them scraped. I said What are you doing? But he remembered nothing he thought I meant by coming and said Same as you I came here for the same reason as you. The funny thing is now I see it every day town through the waves. Yes Conklingville buried underneath the waves although you can't really be buried in water can you? Drowned I suppose but no not drowned either because there was nothing left no one living so if it's not living it can't be drowned. Submerged I see it every day submerged. They won't let me out of here because of last time. Only as far as the porch. It's frozen solid. I don't know what they're afraid of what they think I'll do but I see it even now even from here coming up from under the ice. Oh yes ice moves.

Excerpted from In Pinelight by Thomas Rayfiel. Copyright © 2013 Thomas Rayfiel. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Meet the Author

Thomas Rayfiel is the author of five previous novels, including Time Among the Dead and The Eve Trilogy (Colony Girl, Eve in the City, and Parallel Play). He lives in Brooklyn.

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In Pinelight: A Novel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel is both  unique and captivating. I've never read anything like   it. I was initially afraid that the format would be hard to take in,   but after a few pages I was completely engrossed.