To those who know David Quammen only by his essays and science columns for Outside magazine, it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that he is an accomplished writer of fiction as well. In fact, he began his career as a novelist, and has written three of them, including a well-received spy novel called The Soul of Viktor Tronko. The three novella-length stories contained in Blood Line: Stories of Fathers and Sons present one truly great American short story and two that exhibit something of a yen to flatter the granddaddy of American fiction, William Faulkner.
Blood Line was first published in 1988, and the three stories “Walking Out,” “Nathan’s Rime” and “Uriah’s Letter” all center around the idea that both father and son must necessarily deal with the ‘‘tortuous mutual bloodletting entanglement” of their relationship but are only able to make sense of it after it is too late—usually after the son, by accident or mistake or bad luck, has killed his sire.
“Walking Out” concerns a fat 11-year-old city boy from Chicago and his father who lives in Livingston, divorced from the boy’s mother. The father is desperate to use the opportunity of a fall hunting trip to enforce his son’s connection to the land and his roots in the same way his father taught him. Hunting birds last November was only a prelude to this year’s trip into the Crazy Mountains after a moose. In the father’s rush to communicate these truths to his son, he is imperiously overbearing and only saved from being tyrannical by the sincerity of his love for his son and the belief in the importance of the lesson he is trying to teach.
In the father’s botched attempt to put into words what the whole contrived, arduous, ritual experience means, he says: “‘Your grandfather brought me up on this mountain when I was seventeen. That was the last year he hunted.’ The boy knew what sort of thoughts his father was having. But he also knew that his own home was in Evergreen Park [Chicago], and that he was another man’s boy now, with another man’s name, though this indeed was his father. … ‘And someday you’ll have a son and be forty years older than him, and you’ll want so badly for him to know who you are that you could just cry.’ The boy was embarrassed. ‘And that’s called the cycle of life’s infinite wisdom,’ his father said and laughed at himself unpleasantly.”
Using the third person and a spare style that belies careful crafting of image and symbol, the story is reminiscent of Hemingway, and of Faulkner at his most lucid. Quammen unspools the dramatic thread that leads inexorably to the death of the father and the making of a man from the boy. When there is action, Quammen slows down to a frame-by-frame delivery, savoring each avenue and probability.
“Nathan’s Rime” and “Uriah’s Letter” are exercises in imitation of William Faulkner’s discursive shifting story within a story. While “Nathan’s Rime” is just stylistically Faulkner, “Uriah’s Letter” takes on one of Faulkner’s most demanding but rewarding works, Absalom, Absalom!. Instead of writing about the ruthless Thomas Sutpen, Quammen’s story inhabits a kind of parallel universe inside Absalom, Absalom! which involves the same plot devices: an old spinster (Miss Coldfield/ Miss Louisa) telling the story to a young man (Quentin/Henry) who is telling it to his roommate(Shreve/Ira) at Harvard University, and the same bare bones of the plot. Quammen invents much that is original, but he consciously strives to emulate the language and feel of Faulkner. Certain images are consciously and directly lifted from Faulkner to produce a somewhat disconcerting effect. Encountering words like proscenium, apotheosis, wisteria, verbena, catafalque, apostasy, scuppernong, maundering and lugubrious, it is easy to feel yourself in Yoknapatawpha county, making Quammen’s exercise only that much more formidable. Few can mimic Faulkner’s manic blazing intensity, mind-numbing parenthetical phrases and asides, or his catholic appreciation of both crudity and philosophy, and no one can keep it up over the course of a novel.
But then how best can a writer confront the “bloodletting entanglement” with his own progenitors than by imitation—an homage exposing Quammen to the merciless clarity of Faulkner’s own standards and acquitting himself admirably.