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Boor in the Boondocks

Book review: From Away by David Carkeet


From Away is one of those books you’ll like a lot or not at all by the time you’ve finished the first paragraph. If you like it, as I did, Middlesex author David Carkeet’s novel will make you laugh. Repeatedly. Not for nothing does it come with an approving blurb from quirky-mystery king Carl Hiaasen, or another — from Publishers Weekly — that likens it to the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo.

It’s a good comparison, because From Away is a lumpy but well-spiced gumbo of local color, serious drama and silliness. Like the Coen brothers, Carkeet is less interested in plots than in people and the stupid things they do: His protagonist deserves to stand beside the Dude in The Big Lebowski as a fellow with a knack for changing the tone of every situation he lands in. While From Away isn’t flawless, it’s an original, unlike anything else in its genre.

That genre is the Vermont mystery, which practically qualifies for its own shelf in local bookstores right now. We have Archer Mayor chronicling local (fictional) police work, Don Bredes concocting Northeast Kingdomnoirs , and Castle Freeman Jr. taking a terse, deadpan approach to crime and punishment that feels echt Yankee. Nancy Means Wright has written five books about a dairy-farming sleuth. Thanks to Plymouth author Wendy Clinch, we now even have “Ski Diva” mysteries.

In short, it’s hard to think of an aspect of Vermont’s “brand” or local color that hasn’t been used to divert readers as they solve a whodunit. From stick season to ski season to mud season; from the break-in at the swanky summer home to the bludgeoning in the yard full of beaters, everything’s been covered.

But Dennis Braintree, Carkeet’s antihero, couldn’t care less about what makes Vermont Vermont. As the title indicates, he’s “from away” — a Chicagoan on assignment for his employer, a magazine for model-train enthusiasts. When we first meet Denny, he’s headed for the Burlington airport on I-89, where he runs his rental off the road out of sheer carelessness. We subsequently learn he’s just come from the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour, from which he was expelled for an unseemly outburst after learning he wouldn’t be allowed to taste his favorite discontinued flavor, Wavy Gravy.

Denny is a man of appetites — for food (he weighs in at 300 pounds, with no apologies or diet plans), and for stimulation of less tangible kinds. We get a sense of just how odd he is right off, at the crash site, as he watches a state trooper approach:

[Denny] sat up a bit, but he wasn’t able to see the gun on the trooper’s hip. What would he have to do to make the trooper draw it? How bad did you have to be, how threatening? It was interesting to think about.

“Interesting” is big for Denny. Carkeet notes, “Sometimes he made things up so that the conversation would be more interesting for him.” In a phone conversation, Denny’s boss tells him, “That’s a surprisingly normal sentence, Denny. Is someone coaching you?”

It’s not that Denny is antisocial or perverse. It’s just that “ordinary life wasn’t enough for him. He needed life plus something else.”

And he gets that extra challenge when he takes refuge, after the crash, in a Montpelier hotel “chock-a-block with legislators.” One of the lawmakers checks out early, leaving Denny his room. When a large, drunk and apparently notorious Statehouse party girl named Marge drops by seeking the previous occupant, Denny thinks he’s about to get lucky — for the first time in a while. But while he’s out buying the condoms for their planned tryst, an unpleasant fate befalls Marge, leaving the flatlander the prime suspect in a murder investigation.

Here’s where a coincidence intervenes in Denny’s favor. Seems he bears a striking physical resemblance to native Vermonter and well-liked local musician Homer Dumpling, who disappeared a couple of years before. One of the two detectives assigned to the Marge case has known Homer forever. And, like almost everyone else, he’s quick to believe the evidence of his eyes. Instead of getting cuffed, Denny finds himself being greeted by half of Montpelier as if he were the Prodigal Son.

It’s not the world’s most plausible premise, but it’s rich in comic possibilities. Like the emperor marching down the street in his new clothes, Denny dons Homer’s identity and dares the locals to challenge him. With Yankee unflappability, most of them don’t. Even Homer’s longtime girlfriend, Sarah, a steely public-radio announcer, doesn’t call out the imposter. Meanwhile, Denny applies himself to the task of being Homer, which requires him to try something new: seeing the world from another person’s perspective.

It should be apparent by now that, while From Away has mysteries aplenty (What happened to Marge? What happened to Homer? Why the “Simpsons” allusions?), it isn’t primarily a mystery. Fans of the genre may be frustrated by the dearth of red herrings and plot convolutions on display — not to mention competent police work. (One of the more touching characters is a cop who confesses, “Even when I’m arresting someone, I’m thinking, ‘I bet he didn’t do it.’”)

From Away is less a whodunit than a thought experiment: It’s about placing a volatile outsider in a static situation and watching the resulting turbulence play out to its natural conclusion. Denny’s passion is building model-train layouts — tiny scenarios he can control. His first impression of Montpelier is that of a layout come to life:

Such a dinky town of Betsys and Morts and Marges, and everyone knowing everything because there was so little to know. It was like a model train town full of little people. You could pick them up and put them anywhere you liked.

Of course, no one is quite so easy to manipulate, as Denny/Homer discovers. But, like every juicy tale of a con man or trickster, this one hits on a truth: In a sleepy, close-knit community, an observant interloper can wield more power than he or she deserves.

Ultimately, of course, Carkeet is the one building this tiny world, and he does it with a keen sense of everyday absurdity. The characters are forever talking past and around one another, either because they’re deluded egomaniacs or because they can’t or won’t speak plainly. Take Sarah, who “talked with a mouthful of smiles” on the radio but seethes with anger every time she encounters Homer/Denny. Or Denny’s editor, who delivers bad news this way:

Listen, I’ve been willing to edit your words, but I give up trying to

edit you. I’m worried about you, Denny. I like you. Well, that’s not exactly true, but I am worried. Actually, I’m not all that worried. The point is, you’re fired. I’ve never fired anyone, Denny. Ruth still can’t spell, but she’s my proofreader and I’m sticking with her. You, though — I can’t deal with you anymore.

You can argue with some of the plotting and characterization in From Away, but you can’t argue with the comic timing of passages like that one. Like Denny, Carkeet is “a born word man.” (He wrote three previous novels whose hero is a linguistics professor.) If you can get through the novel without hearing your favorite actors say the dialogue in your head, or even casting a fantasy film version (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Denny? Steve Buscemi as the weaselly woodchuck Sparky?), then you’re a sterner reader than I.

There’s nothing stern about From Away. Like David Lodge, a satirist he resembles, Carkeet clearly likes his characters (or most of them) too much to subject them to the sort of dark, cynical scrutiny of human nature with which many mysteries conclude. While most of the great literary detectives are loners by nature, Denny is an oddball who, against all odds, finds a community. And that’s a Vermont theme par excellence.