Just What Is Novelist Donald Harington Up To Here?
By Stephan Faris
NOVEMBER 9, 1998:
When Angels Rest, By Donald Harington (Counterpoint Press). Hardcover, $24.
IF DONALD HARINGTON'S new book, When Angels Rest, were an animal, it would be a platypus--unfinished, awkward, a mishmash of parts salvaged from loftier goals now abandoned. The book, like the beast, defies characterization. But the question is: Did the author intend to build a platypus?
The story begins with 12-year-old Donny absorbing a beating from his sworn enemies. All the small town's children, we learn, have divided into two camps: The Axis and the Allies; the story takes place, it is now obvious, during World War II. "Before the war," Donny tells us, "we Axis had been required to be the redskins in games of cowboys-and-Indians, and bandits in games of sheriffs-and-outlaws. Somebody always has to be the bad guy."
The conflicts are usually constrained to the baseball field or, if things get more serious, to mock wars with grenades made from rotten potatoes; but now three Allied thugs are wailing on poor Donny in retaliation for something printed in The Stay Morning Star, the weekly paper he self-publishes. Every week, we discover, Donny combs the town for news, then crudely prints and delivers a few dozen copies. His circulation is small, but he is able to pay the printing costs by selling ads to benevolent businesses.
In a bizarrely postmodern twist--the first platypus-like incongruity--both Harington and Donny acknowledge a third party present at the beating. "You were not part of the gang that beat me up, but you watched them do it. That was the first and only thing I knew about you for the longest time: you liked to watch." Only at the end of the chapter do we learn that "you" refers to the audience, "Gentle Reader," as Donny decides to call us.
This revelation introduces the voyeuristic tone that reoccurs sporadically throughout the book. Later, when Donny begins spying on his future girlfriend while she bathes, we are there with him. "Before you judge me too quickly, consider how you are concealing yourself: I shall never see you. You have the privilege of watching all of this, including my most private thoughts and deeds, without ever being seen or heard." But like most of the more interesting elements of the book, Harington doesn't integrate Donny's awareness of the reader consistently or thoroughly enough. The reader's presence appears often enough to be obtrusive but feels too patched-on to set a consistent tone.
The first half of the book chronicles the little events in Donny's world. Donny publishes his newspaper. The Axis-Allies feud escalates (Curiously, the attempted abduction and rape of a young girl is given less attention then the subsequent theft and fatal beating of a mule. Ah well, boys will be boys.). The school teacher organizes her students for the War Effort. Donny's friend, Mare, falls in love, has sex (while Donny and Reader watch) and is drafted into the Marines where he dies a hero's death. In another platypus-like feature, the death scene is the only sequence where we leave Donny's point of view and see the world, however briefly, from another angle.
It's also the only scene that takes place outside Stay More, Arkansas, a fictional Ozark town of Harington's creation, which he is not afraid to compare to Faulkner's fictional county, Yoknapatawpha. When Angels Rest is Harington's tenth book set in Stay More, and perhaps it's time he retire the locale. Harington is an able writer and has a fine ear for dialogue, but, nonetheless, the book has the tired feeling of one sequel too many.
Harington hints at events from previous books, but does not take the trouble to describe their significance for the benefit of those new to his work. Certain characters loom larger than life, their eccentricities and unspoken importance too grand for their small role in the current drama. Others do not get the development they need.
There's a bar scene in Barfly, a screenplay written by Charles Bukowski, where the famously drunken poet made a small cameo as an extra. As the camera panned across him, Bukowski spontaneously exhibited a bar trick. Taking a huge swig of beer, he expertly spit it all back into the bottle from twelve inches away. The trick impressed the director, but he cut the scene. Anybody watching the movie, the director explained, would see Bukowski's trick and say, "Who the hell was that?"
There are times in When Angels Rest when Donny runs around a Stay More entirely peopled by cardboard cutouts and beer-spitting Bukowskis.
After Mare's death, the book's character shifts dramatically as a squad of fun-loving commandos take up residence just outside town. The soldiers are to play the Japanese in upcoming war games (Note the new group of "Axis" members, something Harington makes much use of). The rest of the book consists of Donny alternately impressing the head of the commandos, and wooing Ella Jean, a girl he has long admired.
The war games occur as planned, but the book ends on an unpredictable and unnecessarily misogynistic note. When Donny finally goes to meet Ella Jean to consummate their love, he finds her--randomly, another platypusium--raped and murdered. He screams so hard that his hearing is forever lost, but other than that, there is no resolution to the murder--nor any apparent reason for it either. Although Harington may have felt the need to throw in a "surprise shocker" to end the book, the offhand rape and murder comes across as rather heavy-handed. The event might not seem out of place in another work, but one can't help but wonder at Harington's motives for putting it in this one.
The end result is a book that defies characterization. Is it an allegorical work, a volume-speaking drama of human existence? Is it a comedy full of doubled-up-Hogan's-Heros fun? Is it a coming-of-age story set in a town reminiscent of the author's own? The book could be largely autobiographical. Harington is all but deaf, having, like Donny, lost most of his hearing at the age of 12. His Stay More is based on the town he grew up in. Was this book written in an attempt to understand the brutal murder of a childhood girlfriend? By introducing the device of the "Gentle Reader," is Harington trying to give an account of why he came to write?
It's not that a novel must be easily encapsulated. After all, the platypus is a fascinating animal and, despite appearances, a complete one. But if a book is to leave a burning question to pester a reader's mind, that question should not be: "Huh?"
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