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Book Review: South of the Northeast Kingdom by David Mamet

While trying to pinpoint the Vermont mystique in South of the Northeast Kingdom, David Mamet drops elusive clues about paranormal experiences. "Fall is the season in which I heard the ghosts," writes the wordsmith and filmmaker, foreshadowing a brief mention of his two UFO sightings in a subsequent chapter: "I have seen some damned strange things in the woods, and in the skies."

Most of the episodic book -- part memoir, part philosophical ode to the Green Mountain State, part political diatribe -- is devoted to the material world, however. The Chicago-born Mamet can talk guns with the locals in Cabot, where he has a getaway house, and negotiate movie deals with Hollywood moguls. He's also concerned about George W. Bush: "The Administration seems to be raping the country, smiling, smirking and emptying the coffers of gold," he suggests. "I, a congenital liberal, increasingly feel mugged by my government."

Other than the cleverly subversive script he co-authored for Wag the Dog in 1997, Mamet's topical awareness appears to be somewhat new to him post-9/11. "The savaging of civilization daily stuns me," he explains in print. "I suppose that, previously, I was just not paying attention."

No wonder. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, novelist and non-fiction scribe clearly has been busy. Thirty of his books are on the market, several of them essay collections. His latest venture is a contribution to the National Geographic Society's new Directions series, which publishes travel and place-centered works by prominent literary figures.

As a director, Mamet tends to focus on con games, petty crime and survival-of-the-fittest posturing. From Glengarry Glen Ross to Speed-the-Plow to American Buffalo to Heist, the Mamet oeuvre is rich with characters who have grand schemes and often limited vocabularies. Their creator, on the other hand, is a master with language.

Even his lighter fare demonstrates a deep cynicism about ordinary people. In his film State and Main, the residents of a fictional Vermont town are every bit as calculating as the movie moguls. But South of the Northeast Kingdom displays a soft spot for the inhabitants of Cabot and its environs. Mamet's pals range from fellow flatlanders like novelist Howard Norman and poet Jane Shore to blue-collar natives with names like Buggy, Nookie, Spud, Bunchy and Moose.

Mamet, until recently based primarily in the Boston area, has been enamored of central Vermont since his days as a Goddard College student in the 1960s. In 1997's Make-Believe Town, he describes the Plainfield school, where he also taught, as "sex camp." In the new book, he acknowledges that it was the only educational institution willing "to admit my seventeen-year-old ne'er-do-well self."

As an adult, Mamet raised two families in a nearby post-and-beam farmhouse that dates back to the early 1800s. His first marriage, to actress Lindsay Crouse, produced two daughters; he and Rebecca Pidgeon, a much younger mate who is frequently the star of his films, have two small children.

Mamet has put down roots during the last four decades. In South of the Northeast Kingdom, he rhapsodizes about wood stoves, woodworking tools, hunting, stone walls, neighbors who knit, blacksmiths and dowsing -- earthy, rural things that entice a cerebral urbanite with a metaphysical bent. "There is, to skirt the mystic for a moment, something in the land," he speculates. "There is a spirit in the countryside itself."

Mamet is his own illustrator. Most of his black-and-white photographs in the slim volume depict stark winter scenes. Like his writing, the visual compositions are minimalist. More moody contemplations than snapshots, they reveal only fragments of the truth.

The noted poker fanatic is a hold-your-cards-close-to-the-chest type, which makes it all the more puzzling that he would offer a tattletale recollection of his ex-wife's revenge after a bitter divorce: "I was off somewhere making a film, and returned to Vermont, surprised to find that she had, impromptu, elaborated her list [of the property split agreed to in a settlement]. Every last object in the house was gone. The window shades, the toilet-paper rollers, the match safe screwed into the wall -- indeed, the very plants and bushes ringing the house."

Whatever his sins as a husband, Mamet does provide affectionate memories of being a dad. He's nostalgic about the 70 or 80 little animal figurines he long ago carved for his kids. The same wistfulness is evident in a passage about an ambitious project they shared: cutting goose quills into pens, making ink from soot and writing on birch bark. Yet the seemingly bucolic father feels compelled to confess: "So false, so artificial; that is not the kind of man I am. I am a city man."

Appreciative of Vermont's old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit, Mamet dwells on cherished eateries -- River Run Cafe in Plainfield, Rainbow Sweets in Marshfield, the Village Restaurant in Hardwick. He is also awed by the very notion of a general store "that was the market, fount of wisdom, post office, and seat of government. The tradition persists."

Mamet longs for the quaint Vermont that is fast disappearing -- the defunct junk shop called Dude and Harry's or the auctions that Albert May once ran in Molly's Pond. "In those days, the auctioneer was the local tribune, comic and pundit, interspersing his spiel with witty half-references to so-and-so's drinking habits, financial state, child-rearing capabilities, and treading damn near to who-was-sleeping-with-whom," he writes.

The hippie lore is just as compellingly outdated. One evening in the 1970s, Mamet spotted a goat tethered to a railing outside Montpelier's Pavilion Hotel, where Savoy Theater owner Rick Winston then operated a film series. That image is almost as endearing as the time a traveling salesman arrived on the Goddard campus to hawk items suitable for bridal trousseaus. He was greeted by topless gals from "the Radical Lesbian Dorm," but their protest of bourgeois chauvinism apparently didn't stop them from buying some of his linens, kitchen sets and flatware.

Finding the right words to evoke a sense of place about Vermont can be difficult, and the state matches the author in terms of complexity. A publisher's blurb praises his "edgy eloquence." The vignette-laden book carries some degree of irony as well: Mamet recently moved his home base from Massachusetts to California. The shift might have been a consequence of the "mid-six figure deal" Variety reports he has with NBC to write and produce a television crime series. The as-yet untitled program, to debut in the fall of 2003, will be Robin Hood meets "Mission: Impossible" meets "The A-Team," according to a network executive. "The A-Team?" The network suit sounds like just the sort of huckster Mamet enjoys depicting on stage and screen.

It's going to be a considerable commute from the West Coast if Mamet plans to revisit the woods, mountains, ghosts and UFOs -- not to mention the Nookies, Spuds and Bunchys -- of Vermont. The literary paean to his little patch of paradise south of the Northeast Kingdom might have to serve as a fond farewell.

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