Nathaniel Purple by F.D. Reeve. St. Johnsbury, Vermont: Voyage/Brigantine Media, 2011. 128 pp.
In this short book, poet and novelist F.D. Reeve has condensed a lifetime love affair with Vermont into a richly colored prose eclogue. The mythic progress of a feud, murder and fire in a small town, from late autumn to early spring, from funeral to dancehall, from fisticuffs to a kind of divine retribution, climaxes in an astonishingly visual and aural nine-page scene of a barn burning. Each of its sixteen chapters, some only a few pages long, is narrated by the title character, Nathaniel Purple, and varies in tone, style and emphasis, as do his thoughts, memories and emotions. The story is set inside his head—a fascinating place to visit.
Nathaniel Purple, librarian, lover and volunteer fireman, is a man of many sources, citing Musil, Swedenborg, Balzac, Thoreau and Rabelais as easily as the Bible, Shakespeare and the local Chamber of Commerce brochure. The best-read man in town, he professionally catalogues the references and links he finds between life and literature. By juxtaposing the crises of a small town and the classics from its library, Reeve deliciously heightens the bawdy, bucolic, tragic and transcendent. But Nathaniel is also a man of action, finding himself at various times thwarting an attack on a girl in a feed store, swept up in a vengeful posse and triumphantly herding cattle through town with his pick-up. Reeve has said of his early mentor, the literary critic, poet and autodidact R.P. Blackmur, that he “let me know that a life among books was worthy of an honest man.”
A few of the author’s and character’s references are frustrating, at least for those of us who feel we still have languages to learn and much of literature to explore. To enjoy how Nathaniel reacts to a boy’s request for Robert Musil’s “A Man Without Qualities” by wondering “What’s going to happen to the cows?” (a question Reeve’s book answers with a flourish), I will now have to finish Musil’s book. Some chapters, thrusting us into the local diner and pub, are mostly dialogue, which can be bewildering. The effect is to make the reader an outsider, ignorant of the village’s complex history but immersed in its voices. By degrees, however, we come to recognize the village vices: land greed, sexual envy, murderous rage, spite; and are a bit surprised, along with our narrator, to meet its virtues—tolerance, kindness and humor.
There are wonderful portraits in this book. Reeve first came to Vermont when Norman Rockwell painted there, and many of his characters are drawn with Rockwell’s closely observed mixture of empathy and chagrin, but without his sentimentality. Reeve’s landscape is full of portraiture: “Through the trees, neighbors appeared in a cloud of masks as if disembodied. When you live in a village all your life, everyone is always present.” Reeve’s poetic powers of description convey the transition from the freshness of something seen anew, like “scarlet, mandarin and translucent canary maple leaves” to those same leaves gone sour after a flash of anger, “curled brown, red and yellow.”
As he describes the ways memory intrudes on intimate conversations, I see Reeve’s connection to Robert Frost, another poet-portraitist of New England life, with whom he traveled to Russia in 1962 as translator. Incongruous, humorous or portentious (but never simply stray) thoughts of things read and lived pervade Reeve’s love stories of man and woman growing up together, of man and horse in silent appreciation of the seasons, of man and dog getting drunk together. Nathaniel asks his mare, Crystal, whether she recognizes an (unattributed) quotation from Shakespeare and then tells her to “…forget it. It’s uselessly ambiguous, isn’t it?” It’s a bit from Troilus and Cressida about marital infidelity, law and justice—central to Nathaniel Purple’s tragic core—but he laughs and they trot off.
In Literary Place, an essay on poetry, Reeve wrote that place cannot be separated from character. Of Vermont, he kept “…looking for ways to express its indifferent magnificence, but the danger of sentimentalizing it restrains me.” In this novel, Reeve has found his way past that danger. Every sentiment conveys a history of sentiment: when his villagers finally celebrate a kind of justice done, they dance with joyful abandon to music with the grim, fateful lyrics of ancient ballads. “All writing, all painting, all music and all art are only efforts to get closer to defining the one, ultimate place where we suppose we’ll know exactly who we are.” Nathaniel Purple speaks of his library—his place—first as an observatory and finally as a treasury, as is this book.