Bad things happen, even in the quiet, picturesque towns of rural Maine.
Any Bitter Thing (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California; hardcover; 351 pages; $23.95), the most ambitious offering to date from Portland novelist Monica Wood, opens with a nearly fatal hit-and-run car accident - and that's just for starters. Joyriding teenagers are among the least alarming actors in this Grand Guignol of everyday, all-too-plausible calamity. We meet a child who has lost her parents at age two; a likable young priest charged with sexual molestation; a neighbor who drinks and terrorizes his wife; trusted loved ones capable of breathtaking betrayal; ordinary human beings who blithely destroy one another's lives.In quieter moments we rub shoulders with characters of a less operatic but still worrisome sort: the simmering, closed-off spouse; the crudely macho boyfriend; the luckless ne'er-do-well in his drab city flat; the social worker with an agenda; and a whole Greek chorus of gossipy townsfolk.
Wood borrows her title from Proverbs 27:7: "The full soul tramples upon the honeycomb, but to the hungry soul, any bitter thing tastes sweet." There are times in the course of this novel's heartbreaking trajectory, as rough and irreversible as a white water ride toward the falls, when Wood's principal characters - and with them, her readers - despair of ever tasting sweetness again. Her singular triumph is that, out of this torrent of personal misfortune, she manages to pan a few precious nuggets of happiness, of solace and redemption, affirmation and grace.
At the novel's swirling center is Lizzie Finneran, who, at the moment she is nearly killed by a feckless fourteen-year-old, "AWOL from a wilderness-experience program," works as a guidance counselor at Hinton-Stanton Regional High School, a fictional institution that may remind the reader of any number of real-life counterparts. Here she toils with good-humored fatalism among students and teachers whom she likens to "fellow hostages - each of us privately held, more or less humanely treated, and unlikely to be released anytime soon." The setting is a smallish river town somewhere north and west of Portland, a place that feels so authentic that I double-checked DeLlorme's redoubtable Atlas to make sure it isn't really there. A shoe factory, now defunct, once served as the town's bedrock employer. Today all bets are off, and the community, like Lizzie's teenage clientele, seems to drift between alternative identities, unable to decide.
At thirty years of age, Lizzie is a woman with a past. Much of that past remains wrapped in mystery, and part of the business of the novel is to penetrate the layer-upon-layer of forgetfulness, deceit, emotional blindness, and simple dread in which the old secrets are preserved. "The past is not dead," Faulkner noted. "In fact, it's not even past." And just so, while Lizzie struggles to bounce back from her latest misfortune, she finds her old ghosts stirring frightfully to life.
In a conventional story, the seeds of mystery or conflict are planted early on, to sprout into the body of the narrative and finally reach fruition in a moment of tension-releasing catharsis. Monica Wood is having none of that. Any Bitter Thing opens near the end, with its characters trying to come to terms with the way things have turned out, then takes the reader on a winding, often discomfiting journey back to the place where it all began. Like physicists drawing closer and closer to the ultimate origins of the universe, we inch our way haltingly toward the Big Bang, some two decades gone, that destroyed nine-year-old Lizzie's world and thrust her unhappily into this one.
The narrative structure by which this journey is conducted is an intricate one indeed. Slipping between then and now, as deftly as a child stepping among rocks in a stream, the story also shifts back and forth from Lizzie's point of view to that of her lost, beloved uncle, the man who cared for her after her own parents were killed, only to be taken cruelly in his turn. Father Mike is as uncorrupted as his young niece and as powerless to fend off, or even to comprehend, the merciless workings of destiny. We watch helplessly as the two of them, trapped in the past where we cannot reach or warn them, become fatally entwined in a web of relationships and obligations and conflicting loyalties - a snare so diabolical that, even with a lifetime of hindsight, Lizzie has failed to grasp how it suddenly closed upon them.
A story in which terrible things happen - and happen again, and happen again - finally begs some hard questions, of the sort raised by Job and numberless souls since. What's going on here, Lord? is more or less what it comes down to. How can you sit up there and let this happen? What's the point of living, if this is all there is to it? I can't say Monica Wood, or anyone else, has provided satisfying answers; but she does lead us to the questions along some novel and compelling paths. More than that, she offers in good measure many of the things from which we have long taken solace: beauty, and love, and moments of peace, and rewarding (if fragile) human connectedness.
Above all, truth. Even if the truth is confined to certain narrow specifics, the answer to a private riddle; even if it is bitter and unwelcome - still, it comes as a relief. It brings resolution and a glimmer of hope. If a small truth can be found, then perhaps so, someday, might a greater one.
By story's end, Lizzie has learned things that, on the whole, she would rather not know; some of them are shocking even to a reader who by now expects the worst. There are passages in the novel where I fought the urge to turn away. But with this hard learning Lizzie comes, at last, to a kind of liberation that borders upon transcendence. The past becomes truly past, and the future may, for all we know, turn out not to be so terribly dark. There is no way to slap a cheery ending onto genuine tragedy, but Wood manages to close her story on a note of stubborn affirmation. "The human spirit," one of her characters concludes, "is not built for endless despair."
For a work of such universal scope, Any Bitter Thing is impressively focused in its evocation of place and time. Think globally, write locally: you can practically smell the spruce and hear the distant roar of spring runoff in the river, suffer the tedium of the drive home from Portland, count the days left before the first hard freeze. The natural backdrop is faithfully, if sparingly, drawn. Surnames, place names, throwaway expressions, a hundred minor idiosyncrasies of life Down East - all of it rings true. Maine readers may not recognize themselves (or may not wish to) in Wood's characters, but they will surely recognize the fellow up the road, the young mother with her brood of "muffins," the adolescents shuffling nowhere in particular on a warm spring afternoon. As for readers elsewhere . . . well, folks, welcome to Maine. Not the way life ought to be, perhaps, but unquestionably the way it is.
A novel for everyone? Hardly. But a major work of Maine literature that will find an admiring readership, and deservedly so.
Richard Grant's novels include Tex and Molly in the Afterlife and the forthcoming Another Green World. He lives in Rockport.