In Sue Halpern's first novel, a lay minister wonders why theologians spend so much time debating the problem of evil. In his view, humanity's "main dilemma" is not evil but "hardness." "Why is everyday life so goddamned hard?"
It's a simple question to which the book offers no simple answers. Each chapter starts with a short blurb describing something physically hard -- concrete, ash, slate, diamond. But these scientifically precise images read like an observer's futile attempts to pin down the real and more elusive subject of each chapter, which is the hardness of hearts, minds and life itself.
The novel's setting is a study in contrasts: a hardscrabble mountain village that's a scenic delight to tourists and a numbing routine of logging and road work to those who call it home. Halpern delves under the surface of this place to reveal the strange workings of charity in the broadest sense. An act of good Samaritanism leads to a crime of brutal violence which in its turn occasions an act of love. Along the way, we get a sense of the forces that "harden" people as well as those that make them respond to the plights of neighbors and strangers alike. It's an ambitious conception for a short novel, and one that Halpern realizes with partial success.
Eighteen-year-old Cuzzy Gage was raised in a place called Poverty, "so named the day the child-welfare lady went door-to-door asking questions and, upon hearing the answers, declared, 'Why, you're living in poverty!'" Cuzzy has a basic decency that gets him plenty of female attention, but his life is a mess. He's homeless, jobless and estranged from Crystal, the mother of his infant son, who doesn't like the fact that he doesn't have "dreams" for his future.
The novel's early pages deftly explore the contrast between down-to-earth Cuzzy and the more ambitious, flighty Crystal, who names her son Harrison Ford and fantasizes about a life "more like the lives in People. Not more beautiful or glamorous exactly, but more possible."
Everything changes when Cuzzy meets Tracy, a thirtysomething teacher who's come to the backwoods in order to catalogue the collection of his recently deceased friend, ethnomusicologist Algernon Black. Algie, whom Tracy is still mourning, was everything Cuzzy isn't -- rich, hyperintellectual -- and, if his Wildesque name isn't clue enough, gay.
Despite their differences of class and milieu, Tracy feels a kinship that makes him reach out to Cuzzy, offering him a roof and a job. And Cuzzy, who was so unreceptive to Crystal's prodding, blossoms under Tracy's guidance into someone who likes Maori chants and the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Witnesses to this unusual friendship jump to the conclusion that the two men are lovers. But the reader knows the truth is more complex, and the gap between hard reality and easy expectations sets the stage for a disturbing climax.
Perhaps the novel's greatest strength is Halpern's fluid, moody style. Her descriptions of the northern woods are lucid and photographic. They linger in the mind much as the ghosts of human activity seem to inhabit this desolate landscape. Cuzzy reflects on his own ancestors "pushing back the forest as if it were the sea, pushing and pushing against the tidal force of gravity and new growthe. All around them the forest was constantly returning to its metabolic set point."
If the novel's setting feels real, so do its people: the metaphors used to describe their emotions have a convincing colloquial swing to them, as when Cuzzy compares his feelings for Crystal to having "his feet on the gas and the brake at the same time."
Despite the sureness and consistency of the narrative voice, this is a novel of multiple, sometimes jarring perspectives. Another significant viewpoint is that of Jason Trimble, the town minister who gave Tracy the impetus to reach out to Cuzzy. Struggling with his own definitions of faith and charity in a ministry that often feels like just another struggling town business, Trimble becomes fascinated with Cuzzy's father, a lay minister whose search for the truths behind the ritual is colored by his psychosis.
Each of these characters is a piece in a puzzle that never quite comes together. Rich in metaphors, striking images and tantalizingly-posed questions, The Book of Hard Things needs fleshing out at certain crucial points. Everything hinges on our willingness to believe in the friendship between Cuzzy and Tracy, and while this friendship isn't implausible, it seems mysteriously easy. Cuzzy responds so quickly, and with so little resistance to Tracy's influence that he's the student of every teacher's dreams: that is, the one who doesn't exist.
We may be left feeling that The Book of Hard Things has too many ideas, too many viewpoints, too many stories-within-the-story for its length, like a tapestry that needs another foot to allow for its symmetry to appear. For a novel about the hard things in life, it deploys some dramatic devices that make its resolutions too easy. Still, Halpern's prose illuminates those "hard things" with a stark radiance that will leave the reader reflecting on the roots of human kindness and cruelty long after the book ends.
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