Friday, May 13, 2005

The Worst Novel of 2004: Donald Harington's With

Lest anyone think I'm a TOTAL quote whore, however, I post the following bad review, commissioned late last year for the Charlotte Observer and appearing here for the first and last time.

The book page editor asked in December if I was interested in reviewing Donald Harington's With, which came out in the spring of 2004. The book had completely passed his notice, he said, but a competing paper -- the Raleigh News and Observer -- had declared it the best novel of the year. I told the editor to send it along.

The book sucked from page one. You know, much as you might think otherwise, reviewers don't neccessarily enjoy reading bad books just so they can trash them. In fact, one yearns for a book to be good, and if it looks bad from the beginning you hope against decreasing hope that it will get better. In this case, the miracle did not occur. If anything, it seemed almost bravely awful. The jokes were terrible, the prose was sentimental rubbish, and the story line -- -- involving a young girl who is kidnapped by a child molester -- frequently had me wrinkling my nose in disgust. I got the distinct impression of someone writing with one hand and jacking off with the other. The writer also had, as it turned out, something of a Nabokov fetish, which bothered me even further, as this book is no Lolita, and I couldn't imagine a book Nabokov would admire less; if anything, the book is a rather flagrant example of outright poshlost*.

Obviously, not everyone agreed -- like the people who thought it was the best novel of last year. Neither did several other reviewers.

I phoned the editor, told him the book was not lead review material -- which he had thought it might be -- and that the people in Raleigh must have had their heads up their asses. I told him it was awful. I told him it was shit, and I said I'd be sending my review and he said he would still print it.

I wrote the review as kindly and as accurately as I could, even taking blame upon myself for somehow missing the book when it first came out, and in the interest of balance noting that if nothing else it evoked a perverse fascination.

Weeks pass, no review. I contact the editor. Well, it turns out, the editor had attended some book festival and met with the writer Ron Rash, who loved the book. I was dumbfounded. Harington now had a fellow scribe standing between him and my little bullet.

Not to worry, the editor assured me. He'd still print it, or at the very least he's still pay me.

Months pass.

No review, no money, just me with the following, the lone puny scrap of a few unpleasant days of reading.

Have fun.

With by Donald Harrington. Toby Press. $19.95.

Before I write anything about Donald Harrington's With, I should probably say why I'm getting to it so late. I overlooked the book when it came out last Spring, and only recently did I see where it had popped up on several Best of 2004 lists. I thought possibly I had missed something rare and special, and so I had. It's a flamboyantly ridiculous novel; a graceless, crudely-written pile of hillbilly nonsense that fascinated and repelled me at the same time.

The story follows a young girl who is abducted by a child molester and taken to live in his broken-down mountain retreat. It is told from the point of view of the girl, a dog, and the spirit (as opposed to ghost) of a former resident. The girl is a lithe young beauty, and as we watch her grow from a spunky young nymph to a
glorious pin-up, the book becomes a kind of cornpone wet dream taken to a mythic dimension.

Robin Kerr, the plucky heroine of the story, is the seven-year-old daughter of a poor single mom trying to make ends meet. She is, also, an object of lust for a sleazy cop, Sugrue "Sog" Alan, who takes her to live with him in a barely-refurbished secluded home stocked with provisions he has purchased with stolen drug money.

Sog dreams of an idyllic mountain existence with his unwilling child bride, but it doesn't quite work out. Robin does not, as he hoped, fall in love with him, and his own ill-planning, alcoholism, impotence and advancing poor health keep him in constant misery.

Robin, on the other hand, thrives over the course of years. She learns to read and farm, and uses her free time to make a full-range community of paper dolls. She is able to communicate in some limited fashion with Sog's neglected dog, Hreapha and both of them are tuned in to the with a spirit of a 12-year-old boy named Adam, spirit or "in-habit" of a former (but still living) resident of the home. The three of them are the nucleus of what becomes a family that includes Hreapha's pups, a cat named Robert, a snake named Sheba, a fawn named Dewey and an ill-tempered black bear named Paddington. She and her menagerie survive the elements, and together they conspire to bring about her reconnection with human society.

Inspired this all may seem, but Harington's imagination is actually rather thin gruel. He has no gift for language, his jokes -- which clot every page -- are groaningly unfunny, his animals are cuddly and Disneyfied, and you can almost hear him huffing and puffing every time he turns his attention to his female lead. Nonetheless,
it has the hypnotic charm of a campfire tale told by a free-basing farmhand. Even as it had me groaning, rolling my eyes, and scratching sputtering snorts of disgust in the margins, it also kept me turning the pages.

I couldn't put it down, and I've never been happier to see a book end.**

*"Corn trash, vulgar clich├ęs, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature – these are obvious examples [of poshlost]. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know." -- Nabokov, in The Paris Review

**To quote Nabokov again, "nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity."


Anonymous said...

From Raleigh, NC - I had heard from three sources that Harington's WITH was the best book of 2004. Two were from independent booksellers in the Triangle.

Your words certainly ring true...I feel bad that I blew $20.00 on this book, but even worse that I'd suggested it to my book group!

RW said...

The critical appeal of the book is completely lost on me. Thanks for stopping by, fellow sufferer.