Sunday, October 14, 2012

On "Big Rock Candy Mountain" by Wallace Stegner ****

When Bluebirds Sing from Lemonade Springs, a book of essays that I read of Stegner's, turns out to be a quote from this novel. I love that book of essays. I love Stegner's nonfiction. But I had yet to try my hand at one of his novels. I'd intended to for a long while, but it took over a decade to do so.

What can I say? I think I prefer the nonfiction. I wasn't crazy about this novel, though like many a good book, my interest in grew along with my knowledge of the characters such that I actually did have some concern about what was happening by the book's end. What I figure probably got me a little tired of the book toward the beginning was Stegner's ability to set a scene. That is, he'd set a scene and walk us through it, and often, that scene wasn't that interesting or unique and hardly seemed worth so much detail. I'm thinking, specifically, of the trip by the couple at the center of the story to the carnival: where they ride a Ferris wheel, play games for prizes, and so on--all the things one would expect.

But there are levels of complexity to this book that redeem it in some very great ways. One thing I did enjoy reading about was the relationship between the main couple--how difficult a marriage can be and the sacrifices that are made to sustain it. The woman in the book falls for a man who is very much a man's man--lives on the edge, wants always to be on the go, to move to next big thing--but as she get older, she comes to resent a lot of that adventurous spirit of his, since she just wants to be settled, especially for the kids' sake. There are a lot of fights. She had a chance, when younger, to marry a guy who was very settled and responsible and possibly a better potential husband but he was boring to her; at times, she regrets her decision, but generally, her passion for her (and then much later her duty toward) husband manages to keep her with him or to always make her return (and vice versa, since he leaves and comes back a few times too). Of course, as one passage in the novel makes plain: we often long for what we don't have--another wife at one point talks about how she wishes her husband would move the family about more; she grows tired of living on the same farm year round, year after year.

The novel is, at heart, about this relationship, and about the two sons that come out of that relationship. The man at the center of the story lives not only a dare-devil-like life, he also leads a life that is often full of illegal dealings in the context of his constant search for the "Big Rock Candy Mountain"--easy riches. But nothing is easy, it seems. By the time the latest wealth-making fad comes to his attention, someone else has inevitably claimed exhausted its potential.

The novel is also one of contradictions, for as we stick with the characters through their lives, we begin to see that those who seem the most tough are in fact the weakest, and those who seem the weakest are in fact the toughest. The oldest son cracks up, loses a chance at a promising career, and squanders his life. The youngest son, meanwhile--too dependent on Mom--goes on to a great education. The daredevil husband becomes a drunk; the wife sticks with the husband at his worst and faces death stoically, still showing love for others rather than feeling sorry for herself.

The novel in a way is also about the frontier--or more precisely, about what happens to pioneer men when the frontier no longer exists. The husband wants the big rock candy mountain but he can't handle the fact that it no longer exists, and in a more telling passage, when he seems on the cusp of having it, can't handle it when he might very well have found it. What, after all, does the pioneer man do when he makes the frontier into a safe place called home? If masculinity is defined as "greatness," then it is too much for the men in this novel to bear.

No comments: