Sunday, 19 July 2020

CASTLE FREEMAN'S GO WITH ME, REDUX

My review of Castle Freeman's Come With Me was originally published at Crime Time, but if you hit the link to it I left in 2009 here at IT, it's dead. So I thought I'd reprint the review now. I had been looking for it because I discovered that it had been made into a 2015 movie, called Blackway, directed by the Swedish director Daniel Alfredson, who did the second two films of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I was curious, and I wanted to be reminded of the book before I searched out the film. I'll preface my review of the book with my original Irresistible Targets intro.

Although the story moves along somewhat predictable lines, and though some of the characters are telegraphed by their names, it is the quality of the prose, particularly the dialogue, which makes it work. The quality of Freeman's seemingly simple northern New England prose, and the sharpness of the unsaid within his characters' conversations, makes this a formidable work: a modern Deliverance set in Vermont. What it has that Deliverance didn't is humour: and again this is something of the old New England wryness (the kind of irony Americans are not supposed to possess, according to received wisdom in this country) that I first encountered on the page in The Real Diary Of A Real Boy, by Henry Shute, one of my favourite books when I was a child.

Interestingly, one of the dailies (oh, go on, it was the Guardian) reviewed this book and thought Freeman was a woman. That's nowhere near as bad as the guy I heard on Open Book once talking about Flannery O'Conner as a man, but it does show you how fine-tuned his prose is, as well as revealing what critics sometimes assume about such prose. Actually, although the main character is a woman, the narration is pretty obviously in a male, New England male, Vermonter voice.


COME GO WITH ME (THE CRIME TIME REVIEW, 2009)

When Sheriff Ripley Wingate finds a woman asleep in her car outside his office, early in the morning before most of his Vermont town has risen, he listens to her story and sends her away. The woman is being stalked by a man called Blackway, who has just slit her cat's throat. She refuses to run away from him, but there is nothing the sheriff can do, except send her out to the old sawmill on Dead River, looking for someone who might be able to help. And when that someone turns out not to be there, the men gathered around the pot belly stove call in the only two men working, old Lester Speed and the simple young giant, Nate the Great.  They head off in search of Blackway, and little by little we learn that the woman's name is Lillian, that Blackway has scared her former boyfriend out of Vermont, and that Blackway is not one with whom you trifle.

This might not sound like the most engrossing of plots, but the beauty of this book is in the slow crafting of the story, almost exactly the way stories are told around the stove in the sawmill. That mill is run by Alonzo 'Whizzer' Boot, so called because he's confined to a motorised wheelchair, and the small circle of men, like most of the people in this novel, have nothing much to do, certainly nothing legal. 'No one works,' the sheriff muses at the start of the novel, not like the days of hard-scrabble farming and Yankee grit. It's a circle closed to outsiders, like Lillian, often called 'flatlanders' by the locals, and her journey with Lester and Nate is, in its way, an initiation to the realities of the area to which she came, viewed with amused detachment, but now, if she is going to stay, to assuage her stuborness, becomes a life of which she must learn to become a functioning part.

It's a domestic sort of Deliverance, with Lillian's quest counterpointed by the hot-stove chatter of the men. Freeman, who writes for Yankee magazine, an eccentric reading tradition in Northern New England, has a fine feel for the local talk, for the way outsiders are excluded from it, and for the traditional, if somewhat stereotypically cliched, crafty logic of the people. But what really makes the novel work is its sense of timelessness, in being somehow caught out of time. There are hints that it is being narrated from the present, talking about the past, and others that this is very much the present. But Freeman, perhaps feeling a bit unsure if the audience gets this dislocation, has one of the characters around the hot stove, Conrad, who is the outsider in the group, having married into the town, explain it all. He tells his wife he feels like they are sitting in a rocket ship, travelling at the speed of light, so that 'time doesn't pass for them. Time stretches. It stretches or it shrinks. Or something. They're out of time, you know?' And his wife says 'No, Einstein...I don't have any idea what you're talking about and I don't think you do either.' Though she knows enough to know it's Einsteinian, whatever it is. And Conrad, showing how much he's assimilated, says 'That's possible too'.

This is a finely written book that only gradually becomes a thriller, and all the while it is essaying something that we may have, indeed, lost forever. Freeman can muse, in a coda, about what this new world is like, but for the short ride of these 160 pages, he enthralls you with the old world. A small marvel.

Go With Me
Castle Freeman
Duckworth Overlook 2009, £7.99, ISBN 9780715638354

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