In an earlier review of books from my 2013 reading list, I looked at poetry by one of North Carolina’s best writers, Fred Chappell. This next installment looks at one of his finest novels, the poetic and (one guesses) semi-autobiographical Brighten the Corner Where You Are.
In a way, to call this work a novel is to debase it. Chappell is clearly a meistersinger (in the best, literal meaning of that word). This work of fiction/prose-poetry reads in the same way that any epic or, as in this case, mock-epic does to a knowledgeable reader: as if the tales (and make no mistake; these are tales in the same sense that the various episodes of The Odyssey are individual tales that tell a greater story) are being chanted to the accompaniment of a strummed lyre – though in this case a strummed dulcimer would be more appropriate.
The story itself is a sort of odyssey and no doubt Chappell was also thinking of another great odyssey, that of Leopold Bloom, as he has his main character wander through a day full of heroic adventure, self deception, and eventual self discovery. Much of what Joe Robert Kirkman (a “renaming” that is a subtle nod to that other great NC novelist, Thomas Wolfe, perhaps) experiences with his students (as a teacher and devout believer in Socratic method) , his friend Sandy Slater (what a name for a teacher – epic, indeed!), the school janitor in his secret hideaway, and the goat on the roof of the school is both Homeric and Rabeliasian.
But the backbone of this novel is not these literary allusions, as rich and rewarding as they are for thoughtful readers. The real tension in Brighten the Corner Where You Are comes from the conflict between science and religion, between reason and faith. Chappell cloaks much of this in mythic or literary experience (and gives Homer, Alexander Pope, Francois Rabelais, and James Joyce a run for their money); but Joe Robert, unlike his son Jess (Chappell’s alter ego in the book, a peripheral character but a powerful force in the protagonist’s life) is a man of science – the driving conflict that arches over the entire novel is his impending appearance before the school board for teaching evolution. Joe Robert’s rich inner life, well examined in the novel, allows Chappell both to explain and expound on the problems faced by a thinking man in an unthinking culture (though Chappell does not treat this disdainfully – rather, his main character accepts the biases of a culture that values faith more than reason as valid for that culture as much as his own classical philosophy based ratiocination is valid for him).
Joe Robert’s imagination is rich and he imagines multiple scenarios for how that meeting will play out – all of them leading him to some heroic act or another (resignation, winning of the school board to his view through his rhetorical skill to name a couple). What he ends up doing is so anti-heroic, so perfectly mock-epic, that it seems sure the novel will end dissolved in laughter even as we understand that meaningful social/moral/philosophical issues have been posed and attended to.
Excerpt that it doesn’t.
The novel ends with a dream – a dream of Darwin on trial with Joe Robert Kirkman as his defense counsel and that school board, arrayed more like judges at the Inquisition, determining Darwin’s fate (and, ostensibly, the fate of reason’s light against the darkness of ignorant faith – and fear of demonstrable truth). Joe Robert starts well, and seems to be winning this panoplia of the unlearned to his (and Darwin’s) side by appealing both to their better angels – and to their smug self-satisfaction that they “know enough.”
But then he can’t help himself – he has an epiphany that he must share:
The more favorably I speak of our species, the more its history gives me the lie. The briefest glance at our record shows us to be steeped in blood and reveling in it. We have enjoyed naming compassion weakness and have murdered with full public assent the wisest and most humane of our teachers; we have imagined a monstrous God who regrets that he must torture certain numbers of us during the whole compass of eternity; we have embraced an idea of justice that glories in bloody retribution. We choose war as the final arbiter among political philosophies and wage it against our civilian populations, our children, and our parents. The best of our ideals we have made into excuses to kill our own kind and other animals along with ourselves.
And so the truth is out: in his own letter from the earth, Joe Robert strikes at the heart of bigoted and benighted religions everywhere that hold back, hold down, and hold fast against any attempts to elevate humanity towards truth and light. He continues:
The fact is that Dr. Darwin was mistaken. We did not begin as blobs of simple slime and work up to higher states. We began as innocent germs and added to our original nature cunning, deceit, self-loathing, treachery, betrayal, murder, and blasphemy. We began slowly and have fallen from even that humble estate. It is the nature of the human animal to subject its earnest seekers and most passionate thinkers to humiliation, degradation, imprisonment, and execution. If you condemn this great man to death, you shall be guilty of nothing more than your own most ordinary humanity.
The novel ends with Darwin’s condemnation and drop into the bowels of the earth (a ironic nod to Dryden?) and with Joe Robert giggling and nudging his wife in his sleep and wondering if she got the joke….
The wise reader does. “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” from whence Chappell takes his title, is a famous hymn – by a school teacher who had hoped to be an evangelist. In his novel, Chappell shows us an evangelist of another sort: a proselytizer of knowledge as vehicle for truth.
“More light! More light!” it is claimed Goethe said at the last (though his motivations may be arguable). Joe Robert Kirkman’s light burns bright throughout this novel – and will enlighten any thinking reader.
XPOST: Scholars and Rogues