Bone FireBy Mark Spragg
Ordinarily I don't like novels that have a lot of interwoven story lines. I read very fast and, frankly, I'm a lazy reader. I don't want to keep track of too many characters or subplots. I also usually don't like literary fiction: too often it seems overwritten and ponderous, if not outright pompous.
I make an exception on all counts for this beautifully written story. There are a lot of characters to keep track of and a slew of story lines. There were some relationships that still seemed fuzzy to me even at the end of the book, but that's okay because I got the general idea of the content of the relationships if not the origin. The impact of the book was not in the details. For me it was the reading equivalent of an Impressionist painting, where an overall image emerges from fuzzy details.
There is some action: a kid runs away; a lady dies; a teenager is murdered, but all of that is more or less incidental to the “real” story. There are a lot of characters who are interrelated and whose relationships with one another are complicated, and even ambiguous. Some of the characters are dangerously close to being stereotypes. Then again, maybe they are more like archetypes. The novel is not about plot or action or even specific characters.
It is a powerful evocation of the atmosphere of life in a rural community. Some characters experience it as so beautiful, safe, loving and spiritually fulfilling they can not imagine living anywhere else, nor can they understand how anyone else could want to live anywhere else. Others experience it as so soul-crushingly oppressive they either have to leave or they self-destruct. Those two groups of people regard each other with bemusement. When they also happen to love each other, both parties end up seriously damaged.
As for the children: they have to leave -- whether they want to or not -- for the sake of building a future.
It is a very sad book, but it was uplifting in a way that crept up on me, and surprised me at the end. The dignity with which the two old men live in their skins was strangely inspiring. Despite betrayals by their friends, family and neighbors, they both know how to give and receive love and friendship, each in his own way. Their matter-of-fact acceptance of their own immanent deaths struck a very “real” chord. They are the kind of salt-of-the-earth, decent men who populate small communities all over America. When they learn they are dying, they make the necessary arrangements without a lot of fuss and then live out their dying with the same quiet dignity they lived their lives up to that point. In our fake and phony world, it's nice to know that there are still some good folks out there living good lives, taking care of one another and dying with dignity.
These are Garrison Keilor's kind of folks, doing what needs to be done. I enjoyed spending day in their town. I wouldn't want to live there, but it was a nice place to visit.