Readers who are trying to kick a pack-a-day habit might want to think twice before picking up Montpelier author Thomas Christopher Greene's second novel I'll Never Be Long Gone. That's because Greene is at his most effective when he's describing the simple pleasure of smoking a cigarette outside in the fresh air. Early in the book we're introduced to Charles Bender, a strong-willed, small-town restaurateur who "since the time he was twelve, had loved cigarettes." He particularly loves "smoking at the end of a busy night . . . when he could sit on the back porch of Charlotte's [the restaurant named for his wife] and listen to the clink of dishes being washed, dishes on which he had delivered the best food he could deliver; and listen, too, to the river and the woods and know that the day behind him was a day richly lived."
Bender pays the price for his habit -- the novel opens with his suicide after a probable diagnosis of lung cancer. But while his official heir, steady son Charlie, spurns the cancer sticks, wastrel son Owen carries on his dad's legacy. When he crosses paths with his brother's pretty wife on dark nights, she knows him by the "glow of his cigarette," and we know she won't long be able to resist his bad breath, "piercing green eyes" and Marlboro Man appeal.
That's not to suggest that Greene's book is underwritten by Philip Morris. Rather, I'll Never Be Long Gone is a novel of atmosphere, and its atmosphere is a novel mixture -- part a miasma of smoke and whisky inherited from the laconic universe of Hemingway, part the sharp, moist air of a floodplain in rural Vermont, where Bender's restaurant stands.
Greene's plot is a riff on the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, set in the village of -- wait for it -- Eden. This is the Promised Land to which Charles Bender travels from Manhattan to start a 22-seat restaurant where he can realize his "vision" of fresh, no-nonsense, Alice Waters-style cuisine. Soon word of mouth turns Charlotte's into a "food destination."
To decide which of his sons will inherit his kitchen, Bender pits the boys against each other in a series of cook-offs. Though Owen works hard, Charlie Junior's offering is superior: Like his father, "He could see the road map that led from raw ingredients to something approaching art on the plate." So the patriarch's will grants his more stable son the restaurant and homestead, and sends Owen off with "ten grand and the boot."
Greene's novel owes perhaps less to Genesis than to John Steinbeck, who set his own version of this tale -- East of Eden -- in California's Salinas Valley. Like Steinbeck, Greene waters down the Cain character's murderous rage, making him romantically misunderstood while the Abel brother is, well, a bit dull. Both authors also add a love triangle to the story. When Owen's high school girlfriend Claire Apple returns to Eden from college -- after a stop-off in France, where she just happens to have become a top-notch chef -- Charlie scoops her up.
Several years of marriage and a child later, beautiful, intelligent Claire is bored with her small-town life. When Owen surfaces in Eden after 17 years with the Merchant Marines, the two old lovers have to fight their mutual attraction, especially when circumstances land them in the same kitchen.
But all this seems secondary to the novel's lovingly detailed landscape of mountains, rivers, lakes -- and food prepared from the wealth they offer. Stylistically, Greene emulates Papa Hemingway, gluing together long series of staccato sentences with conjunctions: "She leaned over and he sensed before he saw her and then her face was in front of his and she kissed him." "They made love on the floor of their room and it was a thick carpet and in the morning they would both have rug burns on their knees but they did not care." Some readers may find this chanting prose hypnotic; others may long for a well-placed semicolon.
A deeper flaw is that, when Greene takes us inside his tight-mouthed characters' minds, what they're thinking is generally exactly what we'd expect. Claire "did not want to be one of those girls she grew up with who wanted to dream but did not know how." Owen "had tasted too many things, lived longer and harder than a man of his years should." Though the characters work as archetypes, they lack the spark of individuality necessary to draw us into Green's low-key story of smoldering conflict between loyalty and sexual magnetism, tradition and wanderlust.
In the end, though, it's all about the place and the food. Greene's descriptions of menu preparation are refreshingly unfussy, equally lucid to foodies and amateurs. I'll Never Be Long Gone may get you out searching for the Charlotte's equivalent in your neck of the woods. The book is a tribute to rural cuisine and the values associated with it, especially the notion that "time can be slowed if you live deliberately." Nothing that actually happens in it is as compelling as the image of father, and then son, watching smoke disappear into the dark as they listen to the meanderings of an invisible river.