Joe Allston, the retired literary agent of Stegner's National Book Award-winning novel, The Spectator Bird, returns in this disquieting and keenly observed novel. Scarred by the senseless death of their son and baffled by the engulfing chaos of the 1960s, Allston and his wife, Ruth, have left the coast for a California retreat. And although their new home looks like Eden, it also has serpents: Jim Peck, a messianic exponent of drugs, yoga, and sex; and Marian Catlin, an attractive young woman whose otherworldly innocence is far more appealing--and far more dangerous.
Heart wrenching, difficult and utterly human. Wow.
With that disclaimer aside, I must say that Wallace Stegner has done it again.
There goes my copy of All the Little Live Things right up on the shelf of books I mostly read, except for that little bit at the end. Right up there with all the other Wallace Stegner books, save Crossing to Safety. In this and his other books, Stegner completely engrosses the reader with the scenery of Northern California and the minutiae of everyday human life. He paints his characters in most lucid detail, down to the very birthmark. The reader takes interest, noticing the beauty or ugliness of it all, and then: Stegner tightly turns the wind-up key on his characters. The reader has the pleasure (or displeasure) of watching them all unwind over hundreds of pages. I can't exactly state why this bothers me so much, but it does. The minutiae get even more minute than before--characters take offense to seemingly inoffensive remarks, characters have strange epiphanies, write long letters to each other, say silly things, get drunk, make more offensive remarks, and so on. Somehow, the story leaves the reality that has been previously established by Stegner and moves into "Soap Opera Land."
In All the Little Live Things, there's more than enough offense to go around. Reading this story is like being at the center of a human fishbowl. Also, Stegner has done us the service of telling us the end of the story right at the very beginning, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. One of the main themes of the story, the formation of a strange relationship between the main character, Joe Allston, and his pregnant, ill neighbor, Marian Catlin, isn't entirely credible. They get so caught up in dialog and misconceptions that I really question if two real people would behave that way.
Please don't misunderstand me: I like Stegner. Reading him simply requires a great deal of patience that perhaps I haven't found just yet.
I didn't expect to like this book--Stegner always struck me as a bit too finely crafted for my taste, a bit too much of a scenery painter. And there is certainly some of that here, but much more important are the people, their frailties and the historic conflict between the New Deal Left and the New Left of the 60s. A very fine book.
For Joe, the impact is profound. Marian’s lightness of being and deepness of soul is the antithesis of Joseph Allston’s curmudgeonly and oddly nihilist persona. Just as she challenges his world view, she simultaneously provides an antidote to his poisoned existence. His nihilism is the product of a late-in-life review of what his own life has produced. By the time the story is told, Joe’s personality and character have become those of a contemplative 1960’s conservative aghast at the excesses of the young of the era. Much of Joe’s development into the elder he has become was driven by the pointless life and death of his son, who never managed to get on track and who died in a surfing accident three years earlier.
At the same time, Joe’s worst memories of his relationship with his son are reawakened by the bearded Jim Peck, a motorcycle-riding, non-bathing student at counterculture Berkeley who is in full flight to become the opposite of his own father, a Chicago meat-packer. Peck arrives in Allston’s haven and outrageously asks if he can camp for free on a bit of Allston’s land (he is currently sleeping in university auditoriums). Much against his better judgment, and at the silent behest of Ruth, who remembers with grief and love her own errant son’s life and death, Joe gives Peck his churlish permission to camp on a spit of land just out of their everyday view.
Thoroughly caught up in the lives of the pregnant and frail Marian, her ecologist husband, and her small daughter, Joe and Ruth do not confront the offenses of Jim Peck against their hospitality. Peck steals their water and electricity. He turns his spit of land into a meeting place and finally a school for his counterculture followers. He furnishes the place with a tree house, a tent, a deck, and a mail box. Peck seduces the local teens, the sons and daughters of the Allston’s friends and neighbors. In short, Jim Peck behaves as if he were the owner of the land and as if he were there for the duration.
Shortly after meeting Marian, Joe and Ruth discover that not only is she pregnant, but also she is in remission from breast cancer. Everyone, including her husband, but particularly Joe and Ruth, try to live as if there is no question of the cancer returning. The two families develop a parent-child relationship in the few short months they live as neighbors.
In the summer, a visit to her oncologist in San Francisco reveals the truth: the cancer has returned and it is likely to be quickly fatal. Joe, frantic at the idea of her refusing treatment so she will have a better chance of delivering her child, wavers between begging her husband to make her get treatment and trying to accept her own wishes and the idea that he is going to lose her so quickly after finding her. Within a couple of months, as they prepare to take her for her final trip to the hospital, so she can be given pain medication while she dies, an accident brings the whole situation with Jim Peck to a flashpoint.
Part of this novel is a thinly disguised retelling of Stegner's moral fight with Ken Kesey, who dropped out of Stegner's writing seminar. Part of it is the self-righteousness of the narrator, who loses his moral superiority at a raucus party, but who manages to cling to shreds of it, and part of it is pure theodicy...why do bad things happen to good people. It is tragic. And it is wonderful.
Along comes Jim Peck on a motorcycle, seeking to "camp" in the bottom land of Allston's property. After Allston reluctantly agrees, Peck soon builds a tree house, complete with a rickety bridge that draws up into the tree, a shed, installs a mailbox, and commences to invite free-thinking young friends who trash the land. The cult existence of this lot of young people, includes alcohol, drugs, sex, and more and lures in two young local teenagers.
A neighbor of the Allstons is bent on development and begins bulldozing a nearby hill.
A younger couple with a small daughter and a baby on the way move in across from Allstons and the two families become close friends. The fragile wife, Marion beguiles Joe, and his wife as well, with her intelligence and sunny outlook, different from his own.
On the surface, it seems a companionable quiet life away from the city fray. Read the book to learn all the events that happen to this enclave of diverse people. If you haven't had the pleasure of reading Stegner and you enjoy literary fiction, I highly recommend this book.
Stegner leads us through their lives with a lot of emotions, wonderful pictures of fauna and flora and as a reader I felt like being amongst them.
Into their lives come several neighbors about whom Joe has strong feelings that tell us much about his state of mind and about the complex relationships across age differences. Jim Peck is a hippie-type student who gets permission from Joe and Ruth – very reluctantly from Joe – to set up a camp on their property across from their home. Jim personifies the “new age” ethos of young people with his mystical, and to Joe repellent, approaches to life. Joe sees nothing of any productive value in the way that Jim lives; he considers Jim’s life to be nonsensical and self-absorbed. Jim symbolizes the arrogance of youth who think that a lifestyle counter to the prevailing culture is by its nature superior. Jim becomes a sort of guru attracting young people to his “ashram” and carrying on in ways that irritate Joe. Since the novel was written in the late 60’s it is apparent that the relationship between Joe and Jim is evocative of the generation gap so much in people’s thinking at that time. Jim in his dissolute and, to Joe, rather pointless existence reminds Joe of his son Curtis, a shiftless dilettante whose way of living his life was so troubling to Joe.
The Allston’s have some new neighbors – John and Marian Caitlin – who moved into a house nearby. They are young, closer in age to Jim than Joe and Ruth. Joe has entirely different feelings about the Caitlin’s. John is a research scientist at the university who is frequently away of field expeditions. Marian is a cheerful, tolerant, intelligent woman whose optimistic views of the world and how it should be experienced captivate Joe. He is deeply drawn to her, not in a romantic sense, but as an uplifting contrast to how Curtis and Jim lived their lives. Marian is pregnant with the couple’s second child, but there’s a dark cloud looming. Marian has had cancer and there’s a likelihood it may return.
Joe is irascible and easily irritated by the goings on in the neighborhood. Tom Weld, the owner of much of the land surrounding the homes, has sold off lots to developers and Joe is witnessing the destruction of the tranquil countryside. Jim increasingly takes liberties with his stay on the property, hosting wild parties that draw in neighborhood teenagers and result in a crisis. Joe had been looking for the chance to reconcile himself to the past and his present stage in life and is not finding anything but more unhappiness.
Marian’s cancer does return and the prognosis is poor. She decides not to fight it, but to hold on without medication until the birth of the baby. The Allston’s urge her to take on the cancer, but she refuses. While they are supporting Marian, the clashes with Jim and his commune continue to grow until there is an incident involving a neighbor girl. Joe evicts Jim from the property.
The ending is not revealed here. The themes of the novel connect to the difficulties of finding happiness in the face of powerful cultural currents. The book highlights the generational divide that was so pronounced in the 1960’s and which still now is not resolvable.
What I thought would be the ultimate clash turned out not to be and the story moves in a different direction at the very end. The pivotal scene was so horrific that I had to fast-forward through it because I couldn't take it. Yes, it involves humans, but not only them and it was the suffering of another that pushed me out.
It isn't a cheerful book, but worthy even through its sadness and death. What a writer he was.
Oh and what an actor Edward Herrmann was - he makes Joe come alive. His narration was perfect.