The year is 1960, and the scene is Great Falls, Montana. A real town which, like Richard Russo’s fictional Empire Falls, Maine, seems chosen for the irony in the name given the story to be told. The protagonist and narrator here is Dell Parsons, a fifteen-year-old boy who is earnest but rootless, with a father in the military whose rank isn’t what it once was, a twin sister who’s light years ahead of him developmentally but lacks his passion for school or chess, and a mother and part-time schoolteacher who is hostage to her lowly and itinerant circumstances. “We were a family who didn’t travel,” Dell tells us, “unless we were moving to a new town.”
The general contours of the disaster to come, we learn on page one:
“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”
This is confident, even audacious storytelling—not because it’s showy, but because it refuses to show off at all. In the early going, Ford leaps forward on occasion, teasing out what’s coming, sometimes narrating from the perspective of an earnest fifteen-year-old, other times with the benefit of adult hindsight. Some of this is hardly even noticeable, and all of it works.
To some extent the suspense lies in how these crimes will come to be committed. But far more than this, the story is driven by how these events come to shape a young man trying to find his way in a young life; how he sees what is happening to his family and himself; and what he makes of life under extreme circumstances, after he’s driven by his aunt north across the border to avoid becoming a ward of the state. There he lives with shady characters in a sparsely populated backwater that has a lodge where Americans come to hunt ducks and Dell works for his keep. Dell makes of it what he can.
“It would never be a place with big oak trees and a football field and boys my age to accept me—the way I’d almost had it in Great Falls. This would never be what I wanted. It was Canada.”
Dell’s father, Bev Parsons, is a man burdened by limitless imagination, endless optimism and an astonishing lack of judgment, who finds a silver lining in any omen. When the bank he cased for a heist at nine o’clock one morning turns out to be far busier than he’d seen before on the day in question, he convinces himself all this will serve as some grand diversion. Needless to say, it doesn’t.
The first of two or three beautiful endings—at the close of Part One, two hundred pages in—has Dell’s twin sister leaving the house after their parents are jailed and nobody’s yet come to take them away.
“To concentrate on Berner leaving would make all this seem to be about loss—which isn’t how I think about it to this very day. I think of it as being about progress, and the future, which aren’t always easy to see when you’re so close to both of them.”
Part Two begins shortly thereafter and just in time, with a friend of their mother coming to take Dell before the child welfare services people descend. She drives him north for hours, crossing the border and dropping him into his new life. He grows up in a hurry, and meets some indelible characters in a once-grand duck-hunting lodge, though the parts Dell lives in are spartan to say the least. The grand character at the center of it, one Arthur Remlinger, owns the lodge and his own mysterious background, which has him living so far from anything that feels like civilization or normal life. Dell will finish growing up here, and one wonders what will become of him.
In Part Three we meet the adult Dell has become, a middle-aged secondary school teacher in Canada. We learn what he’s made of all that went on before, and what’s become of his twin sister, who has lived a lowly life and taken their father’s name, Bev, as hers some years back. In the closing portions of the novel, the aging narrator who opened the story reflects back on all this from whatever perspective our lives give us. Wry, dry pearls follow. Like the first five pages, which feature some of the most keenly observed descriptions of a protagonist’s parents in the American canon, these last five pages are worth the price of admission all on their own.
In between lies the great American novel of our times.
The full title of this recent book of nonfiction is My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, a memoir by Jenn Shapland. The author, now living here in Santa Fe, spent time living and working on this project in the McCullers House in Columbia, Georgia, which is open to serious scholars working on the subject. Within its walls, Shapland reviews material from the writer’s extensive archives – correspondence, diary entries, even notes of her therapy sessions with a woman who became the second true love of her life, neither of which were her husband, who had his own issues Shapland doesn’t ignore. Here she details the inadequacies and outright errors in the several biographies of McCullers, most especially the assumptions and arguments that she was heterosexual against all the signs to the contrary, some of which are based on evidence not as available to earlier writers as it was to Shapland, thanks to the passage of decades and the opening of the archives.
There and in the years that follow, Shapland pens a biography of McCullers that is equally an autobiography of herself, hence the subtitle. Her work on McCullers sends Shapland back through her own coming of age and maturing through her twenties, then to the frank realizations, informed acceptances and eventual celebrations of being both lesbian and lucky in love. As a person, like many, who has friends and close family members in every direction who are gay or lesbian or somewhere between there and straight, this aspect of the book was welcome and eye-opening. I’m not saying I knew nothing about all this, of course—I arrived in San Francisco in the 1980’s when the bathhouses were being closed because of an unidentifiable scourge eventually called AIDS, and lived there full time until recently. But here we are served true accounts, not of dealing with that scourge, but of growing up after the awakening it wrought and finding a place in the world, a process that is both enabled and informed by the relative openness of the social dialogue about sexuality these days. All of that is reason to celebrate, not the scourge, but the 21st Century atmosphere that allows people to be who they are now.
McCullers’s own story is worth the price of admission. Wickedly intelligent and very successful as an author, she had close friendships with Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden; lived in “February House” in Brooklyn Heights with the likes of Anais Nin, Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wright; even met and helped Truman Capote get started. But Shapland largely steers clear of all this, to focus on the personal traumas, tribulations and triumphs of McCullers’s personal life—a life filled with talent but hampered by illness, sorting through her feelings and urges to find out who she was, burdened by the complications of dealing with all this in a society that kept homosexuality in the closet. Her two true loves, Annemarie in her youth, and her therapist Mary Carson later in life, figure prominently in the narrative.
Shapland doesn’t ignore McCullers’s husband, Reeves, whom she married twice but never really loved, and who was himself bisexual at a time when nobody talked about that. In drawing conclusions about Carson, Shapland is not afraid to disagree with the several biographies of the subject. Writing nonfiction of this sort often requires disputing what other writers have made of the record they’ve seen, and either concluding otherwise based on new evidence or drawing opposite conclusions from evidence that was there all along. Much of this feels like the product of both her hard work, and the relative freedom one has to tell the truth about these things these days.
This book surprised me and delighted me, right to the end. We learn so much about the mysterious and tortured writer McCullers; the utter failure of that society to accept alternative sexualities to the supposed “norm”; how devastating alcohol was to so many people in the mid-century creative community, and how much talent was burdened by all of this.
It’s a book I would normally shelve to read again, and I doubt I will let go of it unless someone I lend it to loses it. But one thing is certain: I’m going to find a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter somewhere, and work my way through that and the rest of the McCullers catalogue in the months and years to come. And I look forward to Shapland’s next offering.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .