John Pipkin, Woodsburner (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009). 367 pp. $28.95.
When I was younger and vulnerable to enthusiasm, I revered Henry David Thoreau. Driving from California to St. Louis in the summer of 1976, I took a detour through Massachusetts to visit Thoreau’s grave. In those days, the simple squat headstone engraved with the name HENRY was bare. I was among the first, I believe, to leave a stone—a European Jewish custom for this most American and least Hebraic of writers. I was drawn to him by two qualities: his wild-apple independence and hand-milled prose. As far as it is possible for any writer to be, Thoreau was not a man of his time. His famous decision to withdraw from “civilized life” and to dwell “alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor,” was really little more than a practical demonstration of his place in history.
Consider this passage from his Journal (January 9, 1855):
In more recent years, alas, Thoreau has been seen as something else—“the spiritual forefather of modern-day environmentalism,” as a Boston University philosopher called him. The image at left, copied from Greg Perry’s Thoreau blog, is emblematic. The Thoreau Centers for Sustainability, “green nonprofit centers” in New York and San Francisco, naturally take his name. Champions of “green living” credit Thoreau for creating the basic concept. Even John Pipkin, in his new novel based on the embarrassing incident when Thoreau burned down some one hundred acres of the Concord Woods, has the not-yet-thirty writer reflect on the accident: “As towns and cities expand across the continent, woods like these, vaster tracts by far, will disappear beneath ax and saw and the other engines that men will devise to quicken the clearing of what brought them here.”
It is difficult, as you can tell from this sentence, to write a novel about Thoreau. Even if his voice were not so distinctive, or if he had not developed it by April 30, 1844, when he set the fire, the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of Thoreau playing in the ear. Pipkin tries to solve the problem by splitting the narrative among several Massachusetts residents who are affected by the fire—a Norwegian farmhand, the farmer’s wife he adores, an unchurched Protestant preacher, a Boston bookseller in Concord to open a second shop, two Czech lesbians—and also by casting the reflections of “Henry David” in free indirect discourse. Only once does Pipkin essay a passage in Thoreau’s voice. Running to Concord for help in battling the fire, Thoreau composes a journal entry in his head:
Oddmund is rather interesting, especially in his unrequited love for the heavy-fleshed wife of the farmer who employs him, but he is not nearly enough to salvage Pipkin’s first novel. A Ph.D. in English from Rice University and former executive director of the Texas Writers’ League, Pipkin writes with a professional lack of urgency. Because fire-fighting is more dramatic to watch than to describe, he must find other things to write about if his novel is to move forward. The progress of the fire is narrated in the present tense. You know his characters’ minds have wandered when they switch over to the perfect.
After a while Pipkin falls into an easy working rhythm: a moment of action dissolves into paragraphs of flashback or digressive meditation. He resorts to the pathetic fallacy to animate the fire in the Concord Woods (“The pine needles, though quick to ignite, are easily spent, hardly fuel enough to sustain the flames for more than a few seconds at a time. And the fire knows this; it behaves in accordance with its own set of a priori truths. It must keep moving and consuming to survive”). When he slips and says that Oddmund “has not a clue” the farmer’s wife might fancy him, you figure he has simply neglected the beeping of his anachronism detector. But then, at novel’s end, the Boston bookseller, having been scorned by Henry David for his “fine clothes” and “expensive-looking boots and the watch chain at his waistcoat pocket,” decides against opening a branch store in Concord after all. He returns to Boston and founds Starbuck’s. I mean, he opens a coffeehouse instead. And you realize that Woodsburner is not a historical novel at all. It is a moral allegory in which the spiritual forefather of modern-day environmentalism learns painfully that, to safeguard nature against loss, he must cease being a holiday visitor and fashion himself into an odd man.