Mark Noon is a lost soul when he arrives in Ambrose, the make-believe Connecticut River Valley hamlet that dominates the latest novel by Castle Freeman, Jr. My Life and Adventures is not an autobiography, as the title suggests. The Newfane author devotes 406 pages to the tribulations of a fictitious young man in the early 1970s who appears to be part alienated Holden Caulfield and part blank slate. Mark is slightly amorphous, yet wily.
"Choctaw," the character says, when someone asks if his name is Jewish.
"Cherokee," he later tells a second curious person, who thinks "Noon" might be German.
"Sioux" and "Mohawk" are yet other little white lies, offered in response to suggestions that he's Irish or Dutch.
Freeman takes his time letting the reader in on the real back story for this guy, a former college English instructor from the Midwest who regularly hints about supposed family traits. At various points, Mark boasts: "We Noons never quit." "We Noons are scholars." "We Noons know how to face the facts." Through most of the book, the question remains: What Noons?
These mysteries help move the narrative along, as Mark is expelled from the unspecified Central American banana republic where he was duped into doing questionable quasi-diplomatic work for some clandestine enterprise. Broke and without prospects in a Mexican motel, he gives in to squalor. Salvation comes in the form of a phone call from an Ambrose attorney, Orlando Applegate. Someone has bequeathed Mark $150,000 and a decrepit farmhouse. The catch is that our anti-hero actually has to reside in the place, which is way off the grid.
So the lad ditches Elmore Leonard territory for the greener pastures of Howard Frank Mosherville, and even an acre or two of deadpan Annie Proulx. Maybe toss in a little turf from Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, as well. In Vermont, Mark explores a path of difficult self-discovery, taking readers along for an enjoyable, if sometimes exaggerated, dirt-road ride.
His new digs are on Bible Hill, a remote part of Ambrose. Mark's curiosity is piqued when he discovers the previous tenant's old journals in the attic. But the phlegmatic Claude Littlejohn's daily entries offer few clues about the emotional subtext of his existence: "January 31, 1914. Temp. 6 a.m. 10. Snow," reads a typical notation. "February 1, 1914. Fair. Temp. 6 a.m. 5. Snow 22 in."
The actual owner of the property in Littlejohn's day was Hugo Usher, who disappeared, but not before leaving his worldly goods to Mark's late mother. We eventually find out why. Much of Am-brose's complex history is revealed by Applegate, a middle-aged lawyer with secrets of his own.
Little mountain towns can seem alien to flatlanders. Mark perceives the locals as idiosyncratic but endearing. Two of his nearest neighbors are rather reclusive -- a retired cop with vicious dogs and an elderly schoolteacher who once would have been called a spinster. Despite their hermit-like personae, they take the newcomer under their wings and spin elliptical yarns that captivate him.
Everybody in Ambrose has hidden agendas. Turns out "Declan Fitzgerald" is really Avram Goldhammer, a Bronx-born radical who has gone underground on Bible Hill to escape government retribution for his politically motivated crimes.
Mark's mentor and "Zen master" is Orlando Applegate, whose feisty daughter Amanda provides the tale's romantic intrigue. She has grown up in Ambrose, but is wary of becoming trapped by solitude in the Vermont woods.
The cerebral Mark likes to stop and smell the proverbial wild roses in those woods. He meditates on his surroundings, with descriptive passages dwelling on the unique songs of birds, the correct way to insulate a drafty abode, and the agricultural heritage of a region that's digressed from dairy cattle to llamas and marijuana.
Freeman even includes several charts to illustrate the statistical reality of Mark's inclinations. One, for example, details the 11 types of small rodents found on Bible Hill and devoured by the nameless cat that came with his farmhouse.
Mark narrates the proceedings and muses about a range of intellectual subjects while encountering a rich array of "profoundly, irredeemably peculiar" people. There's something a bit forced in the preponderance of eccentrics and oddball situations. But Freeman -- who has written an earlier novel, a short story collection and essays in magazines such as Atlantic Monthly -- displays genuine affection for society's misfits. As citizens of Ambrose, they all fit in.
When Mark is shown, in flashbacks, deciding to leave the volatile Spanish-speaking nation for points north, his shady boss warns him that "the Robert Frost thing" holds its own hazards: "Ver-mont is a snare and a delusion, Mark."
Yet unlike its "evil twin," as Freeman calls New Hampshire, Vermont is a state of mind where the Thoreau-influenced Mark Noon senses that a person can "walk lightly over the world... and maybe the world will walk lightly over you."
Reading My Life and Adventures, it's fun to watch him try.