November 08, 2006
It's almost impossible not to think of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath after reading Harry Cauley's Millersburg, a haunting coming-of-age novel about secrets in once upon a time rural America, when the summer was "stifling hot" and the country, on the eve of war, was still deep in The Depression.
The Wizard of Ox may also come to mind (the book, not the movie ) — that archetypal evocation of loneliness, fantasy and yearning that grew out of the desperation of the '30s. Cauley strikes his own distinctive note, however, with a domestic tale of a three-generation farming family, set in a New Jersey backwater. An abandoned house in the woods would seem like an unlikely place for the matriarch of the family, the imperious and sarcastic widow, Adela Pritchard Wayland, known as Mamu, to settle.
Her roots go back to aristocratic New York, before the crash of '29, but here she is, as the story opens, in Millersburg, on a spread called Broadway Acres, milking goats and ruling over her weak-willed daughter Eulalie Whyte, whose husband has run off; her two grandchildren, Estella and Ben, who tells this tale; and her elegant, handsome reclusive half bother Josh, a Princeton graduate, said to resemble Tyrone Power.
Seeming more Deep South than Northern NJ, the nuclear group also includes the "Negroes" Osceola and Priddie Flowers, former house help, who have signed on full time with a wary Mamu, to see if they can all somehow make a living as farmers.
The first few sentences of this increasingly absorbing narrative, told by 17-year-old Ben, evidence Cauley's skill as a storyteller. Mamu announces she'll probably die before the end of September — not a chance! — and Ben notes that "that same summer there was a grisly double murder in Millersburg. "It was a lurid affair involving sex and mutilation and money and power and revenge which obviously overshadowed both my birthday and Mamu's plans to pass on."
As the chapters unfold Ben learns about the lives of the murdered couple and at the same time about covered-up truths in his own family, strands that through Uncle Josh eventually intersect. On occasion, though, Ben is seen looking back on that long-ago shattering summer of 1939 from somewhere, a great distance away, with brief, indistinct references that give the novel a heartbreaking poignancy, like a sepia-toned photograph looked at in solitude by someone far from home.
No surprise, then, to read that Harry Cauley is a novelist, actor and award-winning playwright, with a fine command of dialogue and an impressive ability to evoke the tangled underbrush of nature and of human nature, especially the ambiguities of adolescence, a time of soaring, moody romanticism. At the shore, where Osceola has taken him crabbing and clamming, Ben realizes "years later" that what he felt then was "the promise of immortality . . . so seductive and inviting that I never wanted to go home at the end of the day."
Of course, no one can go home again, but who would want to anyway, when home is "a strange isolated atmosphere" of tense silences and no friends, a place of shelter but not of love. The portrait Cauley paints of Ben's fierce grandmother Mamu is especially memorable for its complexity. She is, for all her hard, inscrutable hatreds — she tells her own daughter that she was both unwilling and incapable of loving her, of loving anyone — incredibly strong and responsible, a bluestocking liberal Democrat whose relationship with her black partners is one of equals at the table and at work. They will, when the violence subsides, like Faulkner's Dilsey, endure.
Millersburg is a timeless story set in a perilous time, in the history of the country, of the world and of the human heart, as it lets go of innocence. Ben, who recalls that he used to cry himself to sleep when he was little, comes to see that "the luxury of tears would be a rare option. It was the inevitable compromise growing up demanded." The theme may be familiar but Cauley gives it unique and moving variation.
Millersburg by Harry Cauley. The Permanent Press, 203 pp., $26.