"Quietly entertaining, thought-filled. . . . The narrative voice is particularly congenial--cool and unflappable, often humorous."
--Washington Post Book World
Not since The Moviegoer has a first novel limned the human condition with such originality and subtle insight. A small-town iconoclast who is at once deeply principled and occasionally as absurd as the world he rebels against, Quintus Horatius Flaccus (or Horace) has assumed the name of a Roman poet and has forsworn automobiles, and entertains himself by telephoning strangers to ask them what love is or what they think of St. Bernards. His neighbors in the Midwestern town of Oblivion consider him wacko. This suits Horace just fine, since all he wants in life is "the serenity of not caring."
But people are conspiring to make Horace care about them. There's the dying librarian who finds Horace's morbid curiosity oddly bracing. There's the mysterious woman whom Horace rescues, only to become obsessed with her identity. And as Horace finds himself drawn into their affairs, Horace Afoot depicts the unruly dialogue of his mind and heart with sly wit and splendid generosity of feeling.
"Delights continuously with its humor, originality and . . . unfolding personalities." --Rocky Mountain News
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
William Tell Oliver came out of the woods into a field the Mormons used to tend but which had grown over in sassafras and cedar, the slim saplings of sassafras thick now as his arm: though not as thick as his arms had once been, he reminded himself: he was old and his flesh had fallen away some. He didn't dwell on that though, reckoned himself lucky to still be around.
Oliver was carrying a flour sack weighted with ginseng across his shoulder. His blue shirt was darkened in the back and plastered to his shoulders with sweat. It had been still in the thick summer woods and no breeze stirred there, but here where the field ran downhill in a stumbling landscape of brush and stone a wind blew out of the west and tilted the saplings and ran through the leaves bright as quicksilver.
He halted in the shade of a cottonwood and unslung the bag and dropped it and looked up, shading his eyes: the sky was a hot cobalt blue, but westward darkened in indelible increments to a lusterless metallic gray, the color he imagined the seas might turn before a storm. A few birds passed beneath him with shrill broken cries as if they divined some threat implicit with the weathers and he thought it might blow up a rain.
Standing so with his upper face in shadow the full weight of the sun fell on his chin and throat, skin so weathered and browned by the sun and aged by the ceaseless traffic of the years it had taken on the texture of some material finally immutable to the changes of the weathers, as if it had been evolving all his life and ultimately became a kind of whang leather impervious to time or elements, corded, seamed and scarred, pulled tight over the cheekbones and blade of nose that gave his face an Indian cast.
He hunkered in a shady spot to rest. He had been smoking his pipe in the woods to keep the gnats away from his eyes and now he took the pipe from his mouth and knocked the fire from it against a stone, taking care that each spark was extinguished for the woods and fields had been dry since spring and he was a man of a thousand small cautions.
Below him Hovington's tin roof baking in the sun, the bright stream passing beneath the road, the road itself a meandering red slash bleeding through a world of green. He sat quietly, getting his breath back, an old man watching with infinite patience, no more of a hurry about him than you would find in a tree of stone. The place was changing. A new structure had been built of concrete blocks and its whitewash gleamed harshly. New-looking light poles followed the road now, electrical wires strung to the end of the house.
Yet some old strain of secondsight from Celtic forebears saw in the lineaments of house and barn, the gradations of hill and slope and road, something more profound, some subtle aberration of each line, some infinitesimal deviation from the norm that separated this place from any other, made it sacred, or cursed: The Mormons had proclaimed it sacred, built their church there. The whitecaps cursed it with their annihilation, with the rows of graves their descendants would just as soon the woods grew over.
All his life he'd heard folks say they saw lights here at night, they called them mineral lights, corpse candles. Eerie balls of phosphorescence rising over money the Mormons had buried. Oliver doubted there was any money buried, or ever had been, but he smiled when he remembered Lyle Hodges. Hodges had owned the place before Hovington bought it for the back taxes, and Oliver guessed that Hodges had dug up every square foot of the place malleable with pick and shovel. It had been his vocation, his trade; he went out with his tools every morning the weather permitted working at it the way a man might work a farm or a job in a factory, studying by night his queer homemade maps and obscure markings, digging like a demented archeologist searching for the regiment and order of elder times while his wife and son tried to coax crops from soil that would ultimately produce only untaxed whiskey. even now Oliver could have found the old man's brush-covered mounds of earth, pockmarked craters like half-finished graves abandoned in hasty flight. Hodges worked on until his death, his dream sustaining him. Oliver reckoned there was nothing much wrong with that, his own dreams had not weathered as well.
On Sunday, March 22, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Frederick Reuss, author of HORACE AFOOT.
Moderator: Welcome to barnesandnoble.com. This evening we are pleased to host Frederick Reuss, the author of HORACE AFOOT. Good evening, Mr. Reuss. Thank you for joining us online this evening. How was your weekend?
Frederick Reuss: Very busy.
Dale from Williamsburg, VA: Oblivion seems a microcosm of American life, complete with unemployment, crime, and depression. Identity -- and the search for it in our modern age -- and American complacency seem to be the major themes. Could you talk a little bit about the themes in this book and what messages you meant to send?
Frederick Reuss: Oblivion as microcosm -- we're off to a good start. In fact, I did intend to create a kind of microcosmos, and thought it would be interesting to create a character who is attempting to construct an identity from scratch, as it were. Identity is a very nebulous concept -- especially when one begins to obsess about it.
Steven from Orange County, CA: Fred Reuss, what I loved most about your novel were the many layers of Horace's personality and his personal transformation. Was he a work in progress, so to speak, as you wrote? Did you know where his character was headed? Another general question -- where do you get your unusual ideas from?
Frederick Reuss: My Horace was scraped together from the shards of Quintus Horatius Flaccus and then stirred. As to the writing process -- all I can say is, I make it all up as I go along.
Sam from Atlanta: Mr. Reuss, who are your literary influences? Who are your favorite authors, and what are you currently reading?
Frederick Reuss: It seems so pompous to claim influences, but let's see Kafka, Beckett, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Mann, Musil, Kleist, Flann O'Brien. I just finished reading Frederick Exley's A FAN'S NOTES and have started a new book by Luc Sante called THE FACTORY OF FACTS. It's a memoir -- very nicely written -- and addresses the theme of identity in an interesting and very up-to-date sort of way.
Graham from Dayton, OH: Mr. Reuss, are you by any chance a lover of philosophy? Philosophy plays such a big part in the creation of Horace and this book. Who are your favorite philosophers?
Frederick Reuss: I enjoy reading philosophy. I can't say I have a favorite philosopher, just favorite moods that are informed by certain kinds of philosophical discourse. Epicurus influenced the writing of HORACE AFOOT, as did a book on the Cynics I found at the library.
Eugene from Huntington, West Virginia: Mr. Reuss, could you give us an idea of your approach to writing? One writer once said that the way he wrote short stories was by starting out with one true sentence and then following it with another. Sounds easier than it must be. How do you do it? Do you start with a main story idea and just write? Do you have an outline?
Frederick Reuss: I can't say that I have an approach to writing. I just sit down and follow the dictates of my imagination. I never know from one day to the next what is going to come out. But what does come out gets revised and revised and revised.
Dennis from Wooster, OH: I am interested in your background, Mr. Reuss. Your bio says that you have lived in many countries and that this is your first novel. What have you done in the past, before you wrote? Will you just concentrate on writing now that HORACE has been a critical success?
Frederick Reuss: My father was a foreign service officer, and I spent most of my childhood outside the U.S. That biographical fact has led some people to compare me with my fictional character, but all I can say is, I ain't Horace....
Deon from Seattle: Mr. Reuss, often readers like to emotionally identify with a novel's main character (walk inside their shoes for a day, think how they do, become emotionally attached to them). In creating a character as odd as Horace, did you worry that readers would not identify with him and thus stop reading? (For the record, I loved Horace and kept reading.)
Frederick Reuss: The idea that a reader has to identify with a character in a novel is something I find odd. I enjoy thinking along with the author. Guy Davenport (a favorite essayist) defined reading as the suspension of one's mind in the workings of another sensibility. I like that. As to emotional identification -- some of my favorite characters are people whose shoes I would never want to walk in (Raskolnikov), and some aren't even people (Gregor Samsa was a cockroach!).
Teresa from New York: I notice HORACE AFOOT was published by a small Denver press, MacMurray & Beck. Could you talk about the experience of being published by a small independent press versus a large press? I noticed the bestseller COLD MOUNTAIN was published by a small press also. Do you think small presses will attract more acclaimed books in the future (almost like independent film studios have done this past year)?
Frederick Reuss: I can't say what being published by a big press is like, because this is my first book. A writer needs good editorial support, and that is something which small presses can offer. I also think that small presses are taking chances that larger ones might shy away from. Guy Davenport (who I just mentioned) is a great essayist whose works, as far as I know, have only been published by small presses. There are so many great books out there. The more venues the better, I say....
Vivian Beatrice from Saugerties, New York: So, Mr. Reuss, would you say your childhood played a major part in the bizarrist tendencies which can be found in your literature? Would you say there is an Oblivion in every small community? When can we look forward to your second novel? Will you be coming to the Northeast for any book signings in the near future?
Frederick Reuss: I like to think there is an Oblivion in every home....
Linda from Martha's Vineyard: I loved HORACE AFOOT. Are you currently writing a new book or do you plan to? If so, when will it be published and what is it about?
Frederick Reuss: I am working on another novel and hope to have it finished by the summer. I don't dare say any more about it just yet....
Tom from Clearwater: Often writers put a bit of themselves in the characters they create. HORACE is such an interesting, eclectic man. What was your inspiration for his creation? Is there any truth that he is a reflection of you in any way?
Frederick Reuss: To paraphrase no reflection where none intended.
Peter from Switzerland: Happy to report that Horace has already found many friends here in Switzerland. Have heard that a German translation is likely, which will add to your fans here. Is another book in the works, and if so, will it be as stimulating as HORACE?
Frederick Reuss: I am looking forward to reading the book in German. I wish I knew the German word for Oblivion -- nicht sein?
Emily Hoak from Washington, D.C.: HORACE AFOOT is your first novel, and it has been so critically acclaimed (I read your New York Times and Washington Post reviews). Congratulations -- you must be so pleased! How important is it to you that HORACE is well received? Does being positively reviewed put any pressure on you to equally deliver in your next literary endeavor?
Frederick Reuss: I have been very happy with all the reviews. As far as pressure goes, I think of it as an occupational hazard.
Bobby from Falls Church, Virginia: With the Oscars just days away, I can't help wondering what a film version of HORACE AFOOT would look like. If you had your druthers, who would you cast as Horace? Sylvia? Mohr?
Frederick Reuss: I don't know. But I'd love to see an aerial shot of Oblivion someday.
Moderator: Thanks for fielding all of our questions this evening, Mr. Reuss. Any final comments for the online audience?
Frederick Reuss: Thank you. It's been fun.
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