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Country for Old Men

Book Review: Go With Me

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What makes a work of art “primal”? What gives it the force of myth? Judging by our most acclaimed movies this year, the answer’s pretty simple: violence. In our civilized, regimented society, audiences are fascinated by characters who dominate others by force: Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Blackway, the villain of Newfane writer Castle Freeman Jr.’s third novel, is cut from the same cloth. As one character puts it, “Blackway sees something he wants, he takes it. If you don’t like that and you think you can take it back, you’re welcome to try. That’s all.”

But Go With Me isn’t really about Blackway, who shows up late in the novel and never even gets a first name. It’s not about the lawless greed he embodies, or how he overreaches and brings himself down. The questions it poses are a little less “Greek tragedy” and a little more “classic Western”: What do ordinary people do when confronted with a dark force of nature? Do they learn to live with it, or stand up and fight?

Freeman’s slim novel — practically a novella — takes place over about 24 hours in an unnamed county in southern Vermont. (The climactic chapters bring us to an eerie wilderness called “the Towns,” associated with mysterious disappearances, just like the so-called “Bennington Triangle.”) It opens near dawn, when the local sheriff comes to work and discovers a young woman sitting in a parked car, clutching a paring knife. Beside her is the fresh carcass of her cat — killed, she says, by Blackway, who has been stalking her. The sheriff doesn’t ask how the young woman ran afoul of Blackway. (We find out later.) He doesn’t suggest she has any legal recourse. But he does tell her to go to a semi-defunct mill, once a chair company, and talk to a man named Whizzer.

When the damsel in distress, whose name is Lillian, asks the sheriff exactly how Whizzer is likely to help her, he answers with the Yankee terseness that’s Freeman’s stock in trade: “That would be up to him. Wouldn’t it?”

As far as Freeman’s characters are concerned, this town might as well be the 19th-century frontier, where disputes are settled with uneasy alliances and fists. Well, not necessarily fists. In one of the book’s laconic exchanges of dialogue, a crafty old fellow named Lester explains to a younger man with more strength than smarts how you really win a fight: “You have to hit a man, hit him with something. Not your fist, something hard. That way, you only have to hit him once.” Later on, Lester demonstrates the principle in a scene that makes the martial-arts battles of modern action movies look like exactly what they are: bloodless choreography.

Infirm Lester and “sixth-grade dropout” Nate are the two men appointed by Whizzer to “go with” Lillian to confront Blackway, and a less overtly promising pair is hard to imagine. The story has no “mythic” trappings: No one forges any swords or pontificates about what it takes to slay a monster in human form. Indeed, Freeman makes it clear that the townspeople have been living in relative peace with their monster for decades.

Everyone’s first advice to Lillian is to leave town. Her refusal to be intimidated — “What’s the matter with you people?” she asks — draws a mix of admiration and stolid irritation from folks who perceive this girl “from upstate” as the outsider troubling their turf. Blackway may be about as manageable as a hungry grizzly, but he’s right where he belongs.

Freeman portrays rural Vermont as a land in the throes of change where some old habits die surprisingly hard. After Lillian and her two unlikely knights set off in search of Blackway, Freeman leaves them periodically to return to the mill, where Whizzer and his buddies spend their days drinking and shooting the breeze. With almost no narration to interfere, their quick, overlapping exchanges of words read like a screenplay — or like the chanting of a Greek chorus. The greatest testament to Freeman’s skill as a writer is that he manages to shoehorn a ton of “context” and well-worn local memes into these conversations while keeping them easy and natural. We see this, for instance, when one of Whizzer’s friends notes the dearth of jobs for able-bodied but dim-ish young men like Nate in the postmodern global economy:

“I don’t see where he fits anymore, is what I’m saying. You know what it is today: You’re either a brain surgeon or you’re drawing welfare.”

“Is that right?” Whizzer asked him. “Which of them is you?”

Maybe there is something just as primal as violence: wit, in both senses of the word. While the men at the mill slyly josh and one-up each other, old Lester prepares a few tricks that Blackway might not see coming. Though it may recall the old stories of knights and dragons and swords and samurai, not to mention the blood-drenched updated Westerns of Cormac McCarthy, Go With Me doesn’t really belong in that dark-minded genre. It has the buoyancy of a well-told folktale; it’s easy to absorb and hard to forget. Petty tyrants and bullies may come and go, Freeman suggests, but it’s the crafty ones, the web spinners and storytellers, who live to tell the tale.

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From Go With Me:

Lester left the office to go after the young woman and Nate. Whizzer and the others heard their footfalls on the mill floor, then they didn’t. Coop got up and went to the window.

“They’re taking Nate the Great’s truck,” he said.

“Girl’s a piece of work, ain’t she?” said D.B.

“Who is she?” Conrad asked.

“Hair down to her ass,” said Coop. “See her hair?”

“Thinks she’s a cut above, too, don’t she?” said D.B. “What’s the matter with you people?”

“Whiz liked her all right,” said Coop.

“Did you?” Conrad asked Whizzer.

“Sure,” said Whizzer.

“Whiz likes hair,” said Coop.

“Wishes he had more of his own,” said D.B.

“What’s the matter with her hair?” Whizzer asked.

You people?” said D.B. “Cat named Annabelle? Thinks she’s something. Thinks she’s — what do you call that?”

“You call that attitude,” said Conrad.

“Attitude on her,” said D.B. “Who’s she think she is, anyway?”

“Who is she, anyway?” asked Conrad. “Is she local?”

“No,” said Coop. “She’s not from here. From the city, it looks like.”

“The city?” said Whizzer. “No, she ain’t. Not a chance. She’s no city girl. She ain’t from right here, maybe, but she didn’t come far to get here.”

“How do you know that?” Conrad asked him.

“Whiz can spot a woodchuck a mile off,” said D.B.

“Takes one to know one,” said Whizzer.

“Wherever she’s from, she’s some little pistol, there, ain’t she?” said D.B. “She won’t run from Blackway. Hell, no.”

“She’s right,” said Whizzer. “She ain’t done nothing. No reason she should run. Would you?”

“Run from Blackway?” D.B. answered. “Hell, yes.”

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