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Mild Frontier

Review of All That I Have by Castle Freeman Jr., Steerforth Press, 166 pages. $22.95.


Published March 4, 2009 at 6:40 a.m.

Howard Frank Mosher has his Jay Craven. But will Newfane novelist Castle Freeman Jr. ever find a simpatico director to bring his slim, taut novels to the screen?

Freeman’s previous novel, last year’s Go With Me, certainly offered prime cinematic material. Set in rural Vermont and structured like a suspense thriller, Go With Me drew a slew of glowing reviews; The Wall Street Journal said it had “echoes of Deliverance and Cormac McCarthy.”

All That I Have is a quieter novel, a simmerer rather than a potboiler. Narrated by Sheriff Lucian Wing — the successor of Sheriff Wingate in Go With Me — it suggests that Freeman intends to map every inch of his fictional southern Vermont county the way Faulkner did his Mississippi one. And when he’s done, he’ll have created a sort of rural anti-noir, a fictional universe where lawmen rumble down not-so-mean streets in their humble pickups and keep order without firing a shot. Freeman’s world isn’t particularly gentle, nor is it free of tragedy. But All That I Have is as far from the Manichean melodrama of crime fiction — and the literary fiction inspired by it — as you’re likely to get.

It’s also an excellent companion to Go With Me, which opens with a young woman showing up at the sheriff’s office asking for protection from a man who clearly means to do her harm. His first suggestion: Leave town. His second, off the record: Put some frontier justice in motion. That novel may leave the reader wondering what, if anything, lawmen do in densely wooded, sparsely populated country where the rule of law seldom seems to apply. In All That I Have, we find out.

Throughout the novel, middle-aged Sheriff Wing puts the plot on pause to deliver disquisitions on what he calls “sheriffing.” Unlike a cop, who nabs criminals and figures his job is done, “The sheriff brings law to people who don’t need law … sheriffing is enforcing the rules for people who nine times out of ten obey the rules on their own. But,” Wing notes with his characteristic terse understatement, “sheriffing don’t necessarily go well on the tenth fellow. And it don’t necessarily go well with people who don’t know the rules, people from away.”

“People from away” turn out to be the problem (or part of it) in this story, which opens with a call from a state trooper about a naked, badly beaten fellow who’s trussed to a tree and screaming in Russian. A week previously, Wing recalls, he was summoned by a tripped security alarm at a Gold Coast mansion, where he discovered a break-in and a stack of porno magazines in Cyrillic text. Coincidence? He thinks not.

Soon enough, the well-heeled Russians turn up, eager to retrieve a safe stolen from their property. Wing is pretty sure he knows who did the smash-and-grab — a dim-witted local Adonis named Sean Duke, whom everyone calls “Superboy.” Wing’s ambitious deputy, Lyle Keen, prods him to arrest Sean, but that doesn’t fit Wing’s notion of sheriffing. Nor does letting the Russians, who are linked to international organized crime, introduce the local boy to their own crude version of justice.

Sheriffing turns out to be surprisingly Zen. (Wing remembers his mentor’s advice: “All you have to do is do your job. But Wingate never said what the job was.”) Where Archer Mayor’s fictional detective Joe Gunther would go out and leave no stone unturned in his investigation, Wing waits for events to develop, for motivations to ripen. Once they do, he makes his move, and it’s usually the right one. Still, by the end of the novel, Wing’s own life — including his long marriage to the only woman he’s ever loved — has changed in ways he can’t undo.

As this synopsis suggests, All That I Have is a character study, not a whodunit. It offers very little mystery, but gives us the constant pleasure of Wing’s voice, a laconic speech so clipped and place-specific we can almost hear it in our heads. Take Wing’s account of his upbringing: “We had a deal with our mother. Her end was, we could have anything we wanted. Our end was, we wouldn’t want too much.” Or his explanation of Sean’s appeal to the ladies: “[H]e had that kind of bold grin that makes some women think, Well, this fellow’s pretty sure of himself. He’s pretty confident. He must have something. He obviously don’t have it in his brains. Maybe he’s got it in his shorts. Let’s find out.”

As its epigraph makes clear, the title of All That I Have alludes to the parable of the prodigal son. (When he asks why his straying brother was favored, the obedient son is told, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.”) Grumbling, moralistic Deputy Keen plays the role of the Good Son in this version. He wonders why Wing doesn’t bring the law down on prodigal Sean — is it because the childless sheriff yearns for a surrogate son? Or because Sean’s real father came home from the Gulf War in a coffin when the boy was too young to comprehend his loss?

But Wing has a deeper reason for keeping Sean alive, one that goes to the core of his way of “sheriffing.” “In working with your bad boys,” he explains, “you’re also in the conservation business, in a manner of speaking, you’re in the endangered species business; because bad boys are getting scarce … without the Seans of this world, it looks like the only young fellows we’d have in these parts would be bank clerks and sales representatives and fellows who want to work on computers …” In Wing’s personal lexicon, those white-collar workers are “big lookers,” self-promoters who think they can brag and buy their way into his confidence. They’re the antithesis of the traditional ways he wants to preserve.

Is that a simplistic distinction? Sure. But there’s nothing simplistic or cliché-Vermont about the way Wing — and Freeman — see the local traditions and the community they bind. Remove one bad apple from the pie, and nothing tastes the same. As Wing says about sheriffing, “You can’t do it with spare parts. It’s a whole thing you’re working on. It’s a whole thing you have to keep going.”

A novelist trying to capture a sense of place might describe his work just so. Freeman’s novels may not be global literary monuments, but they’re indelibly his and indelibly, uncompromisingly local. It’s tempting to wonder what the Coen brothers would do with them, in the quirky-Americana tradition of Fargo. For now, though, it’s enough to hear the whip-sharp dialogues and monologues come alive on the page as the sheriff shows us his world.