Go With Me came out to critical acclaim eleven years ago, loved by literary types and scorned by others. Had I read any of these others' Amazon "customer reviews" of the book I might have taken a pass and selected something a tad less "literary." The book was so uninteresting, wrote C. Lee, "I would much prefer chewing cardboard!" And from Brian Driver, "The story is boring, repetitive, derogatory, simplistic, and a waste of time." I saw renowned novelist Cormac McCarthy’s work mentioned favorably in comparison to Castle Freeman’s style, which would have further cautioned me against downloading Go With Me, as apparently I am in the minority of fashionable fiction aficionados who find The Road and Blood Meridian and the others no country for us.
Not having seen any of this, but having recently read another of Freeman’s novels, All That I Have, which I liked, I downloaded Go With Me and started reading, and soon started wondering if I’d made the same mistake as C. Lee and Brian Driver and the others with whom the book left an unpleasant taste. No problem with the beginning, tho, as it starts quite nicely--literarily, in fact:
Midsummer: The long days begin in bright, rising mist and never end. Their hours stretch, they stretch. They stretch to hold everything you can shove into them; they’ll take whatever you’ve got. Action, no action, good ideas, bad ideas, talk, love, trouble, every kind of lie— they’ll hold them all. Work? No. Nobody works any longer. To be sure, they did. The farmers worked. The midsummer days were the best working time of the year for the farmers, but the farmers are gone. They worked, they built, but they’re gone. Who’s next?
The setting is rural Vermont. The writing has some of the sparse, flinty New England feel of All That I Have, and the novel is short, like the other, so I settled in for a quick, enjoyable quasi-literary read with oddly interesting characters and an oddly engaging plot. And I got all of that, but I can see what put the others off--readers who no doubt prefer a swiftly paced predictably unpredictable story with a truly nasty villain and oh-so-clever dialogue from starkly painted characters they could imagine portrayed by actors from their favorite TV shows. Oh, and plenty of violently shed blood, bone, dignity, and life! And there is some of that violence in Go With Me. The very first victim of deadly violence is a cat.
Sheriff Ripley Wingate finds the cat corpse in a car parked next to the courthouse when he arrives at work in the morning. A young woman is curled up on the front seat asleep. A kitchen knife is on the seat beside her. Wingate taps on the window, the woman awakens and grabs the knife. Comes now the first of author Castle Freeman’s evidently signature quirky dialogue:
“Help you?” Sheriff Wingate asked her.
“I’m waiting for the sheriff,” the young woman said.
“I’m waiting for the sheriff,” the young woman said again, louder, to be heard through the closed windows of the little car.
“I’m the sheriff.”
“Why don’t you come on inside?” the sheriff said. He nodded toward the courthouse.
The young woman made no move to leave the car, but she leaned across the seat and rolled the passenger’s window down a couple of inches.
“You don’t have a uniform,” she said.
“No,” the sheriff said. He straightened and turned to start back to the courthouse.
“How do I know you’re the sheriff?”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” the sheriff said. “You can sit out here long as you want. Maybe another sheriff will come along.”
So...the woman complies, and soon she’s telling Sheriff Wingate in his cramped little basement office that a man has been stalking her, has smashed the rear window of her car and killed her cat. “I need help,” she says.
“Help with what?”
“He’s after me...a man. He wants to hurt me.”
“That’s right. He watches me. He follows me. He won’t let me alone.”
“Blackway,” Wingate says. Then, after several pages of the same barely functional conversation reminiscent of an Abbott and Costello skit, he eventually tells her, with no explanation, there’s “not much” he can do. He suggests she might find someone to help her at the old chair factory.
“There’s usually a few fellows around there. Ask for Whizzer.” she does, tells the “fellows” there her story, and soon two of them agree to help her find Blackway and persuade him to leave her alone.
So...the stage has finally eked its way out for us. We have the distressed damsel, the villain, and what at least one reviewer called the “Greek chorus,” i.e. the “fellows” who hang out at the old chair factory. No surprise the damsel is attractive, as several of the fellows can’t seem to keep from mentioning at every opportunity her “very long” brown hair. They’re not especially enamored of “the mouth on her,” quite quick with the eff word, they noticed. But that hair…
And our villain, whom we never hear or are given a direct look at, or even learn his first name, is always in shadows and what we know of him is virtually always second or third hand. Here’s what one local woman says of Blackway: “He’s like the village criminal...he’s what we’ve got up here instead of organized crime.”
The two men helping the damsel are Nate the Great, a big, strong, dumb (practically mute) young fellow, and Lester, a wily old ex-lumberjack who “knows all the tricks.”
Well then it’s hi ho and off they go, not dancing along any yellow brick road, but working their way through the dives and abandoned lumber camps and into the deep dark woods where four Frenchmen disappeared some years back, as did more recently a college girl who went a’camping in there. Along the way, Lester stops at his house and gets what he claims are “curtain rods” wrapped in black plastic bags. Whenever Blackway is mentioned, Nate the Great utters one of the few words we hear from him: “I ain’t afraid of Blackway.”
From the damsel and the Greek chorus back at the old chair factory we learn Sheriff Wingate had fired Blackway as his deputy after stopping the damsel and her boyfriend on an alleged traffic infraction, and stealing a load of marijuana from them. The boyfriend ran away without so much as a by-your-leave, the damsel tells her companions, allowing a note of scorn to color her voice. She refuses to run because “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The narrative, once the trio hits Blackway’s trail, switches back and forth between the chorus and the trio. I found this a tad tedious at first until it became clear their Abbott/Costello idiotic miscues and misunderstandings were providing valuable background and insights into the lead characters—including the blackguard Blackway. I even got a few laughs out of them.
|Castle Freeman Jr.|
If cardboard truly tastes better than Go With Me, as C. Lee promises in his Amazon “customer review,” then I surely have been missing out on some mighty good eating. And I sure as hell ain’t afraid of no Blackway!
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]