A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
John Gregory Brown
(Leo Boudreaux/Little Brown)
Henry Garrett tells us that he is "A squanderer. A coward. A louse." Since he is the narrator of this novel, who are we to dispute him? He does seem to get quite caught up in his own thoughts, especially the self-condemnatory ones. "Caught up" is perhaps not the best phrase; better: "enmeshed" or "tangled up." Best: "trapped."
He was a high school teacher, and apparently his students loved him. The school authorities did not fancy his off-the-wall antics, nor did his wife. He floundered around there in New Orleans, used an inheritance to buy a used grocery store, let people come in and stock its shelves with whatever they wanted to sell, even leaving the cash register to be used on a first-come-first-served basis.
That was, for Amy, his wife, the last straw. She ran off to Virginia. And as Katrina threatened to ravage the land, Henry got in his car and more or less ambled after her, ending up in a motel in Marimore, Va.
He might have gone further up Route 29 but a prisoner working on the highway threw himself in front of his car and was killed. His name was Marion Hughes, and he did it under the mistaken assumption that his wife would get a $5,000 compensation from the state. Prisoner suicides, however, it turns out, don't count in the reparations sweepstakes. At least not in Virginia.
If this sounds a little Wandervogel, the book certainly fills that bill. In fact, A Thousand Miles from Nowhere wandered about so much that I nearly gave up around page sixty but it was midnight and I couldn't get to sleep and I had left the other books back in the office and I didn't feel like getting out of bed &ct &ct.
And frankly, after Henry squashed poor old Mr. Hughes, it does juice things up a bit. We figure that Henry will be shipped over to the state pen in Lunenburg and we will get to see how his wooly ways sit with his various cellmates but then again, this is Virginia, and the chances of someone getting salted away for merely running over a black prisoner are, as one might have guessed, nil.
All is not lost. Henry has to stick around for a bit in Marimore for various legal technicalities of running over someone to be worked out. He is fortunate to be staying in a seedy motel run by Latangi, from India. She - - - like most of the other people in town - - - have been watching the devastation on television, and offers to let Henry stay on as long as he wants because she assumes he has lost everything in the hurricane, and he, being a diliatory sort, can't get the words together to explain that he missed it because he was already out of town. She is right, he has lost everything but it has little to do with hurricanes.
Latangi's husband Mohit was working on a poem when he died, and because Henry is a teacher she wants him to read it and tell her if it is as good as she thinks. After a fair amount of dithering around what with the sheriff and the judge and the funeral and all, Henry goes through it and thinks that it is the most stupendous poem he has ever read, even claiming that it will change his dithery ways.
Unfortunately, the lines he (or the author) quotes to the reader don't necessarily strike one reader as the best-ever life-changing class of tremendous epic verse.
Sit at His feet and be blessed! Expect to be landed upon the shore. Make a way out of no way!
A way out of no way. As simple and childish as that sermon's word-play seemed, wasn't that precisely what he was trying to do? He thought of the scene in Mohit's poem in which the young maiden doubts the prince's ardent expressions of his love.
Why do you speak so? the maiden asks the prince. Aren't your words but a wracked ship?
I am the wracked ship, the prince replies. You are the sea into which I sink.
No, she says, blushing. Let me be your salvage. I will be your shore.
Hell, I don't know. Maybe the author wants us to think that Henry is some kind of a poetry-boob, easily moved by a quasi-Eastern epic style filled with wracked ships; or maybe this is show-stopping stuff, and I, a self-proclaimed poetry boob as well, am not able to make head nor tails out of something which your regular English major could perhaps find to be out-of-this-world.
In any event, Mohit's poem blows poor old Henry out of his rut: he vows to dig up $5,000 for Marion Hughe's wheel-chair-bound widow (diabetes, which manages to kill her off before the end of the book), try to make amends to his own long-suffering wife, and - - - to boot - - - heads back to New Orleans to look up a friend who may or may not have died in the storm.
If nothing else, the epic-poem shake-up gets the book more or less out of its rut too, and most if not all of Henry's squanderer . . . coward . . . louse self-imagery is swept away too. Gone with the wind, as it were.