Following the publication of Wise Blood in 1952, whispered speculation commenced among the novelist’s relatives, who wondered how an innocent Catholic girl from a genteel Southern background could have acquired the worldly experience to write the early scene in which Hazel Motes enters a stall in the men’s room at the local train station, reads the graffiti inscribed on the walls, and takes a taxi directly to the home of Mrs. Leonora Watts, the town’s fancy lady. Readers of Bearings and Distances who are aware that the author took a Ph.D. from the University of Dallas, has taught literature for 30 years, and is currently president of the theologically and otherwise conservative Wyoming Catholic College in the small town of Lander may be similarly bemused by Glenn Arbery’s familiarity with the seamiest aspects of lower-middle-class life in rural Georgia. (An acquaintance with that of the upper-middle-class, but in some ways equally squalid though more socially and intellectually sophisticated, milieu of higher academe in the Upper Midwest and in New England would, of course, have been unavoidable.) I hasten to add that Bearings and Distances is no more an “immoral novel” than Wise Blood, or, for that matter, L’Assommoir, or Sanctuary (considered by the late Catholic academic John Senior a morally vicious book). Arbery’s interest is not in immorality but in life as it was, and is, lived in a particular locale, a geographic region, and by extension America—and by further extension the modern Western world. Glenn Arbery has written a novel—rather a lengthy one, actually—combining a 20th-century Southern setting out of one of Walker Percy’s books with a story that might have been invented by William Faulkner. While the combination is to some degree unsettling, it is also highly effective owing to authorial technique in literary architecture and pacing, and a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and dialect—not the modern Georgia dialect only but the national one (one can hardly call it a language), a good 75 percent of which is cobbled together by large patches of four-letter words.
A book such as Bearings and Distances calls for either a relatively short review that sticks close to generalities, or a lengthy and detailed one. I leave it to the literary journals, when finally they catch up with this fine novel, to print the second, while I go the first route.
The story concerns Braxton Forrest, a former Georgia football star and hometown hero who has since become a professor of English and an academic star by cleverly combining an interest in race and gametic theory around the time of President Obama’s first inauguration. To these accomplishments he has added, beginning in puberty, a finished sexual athleticism suggestive of Don Giovanni and Casanova and an appetite and capacity for drink that is no doubt equally compatible with the blue-collar acquaintances of his youth and the swinging academics he consorted with in the late 1960’s and 70’s, when hard drinking was presumably as prevalent and accepted as bedding one’s students. Braxton Forrest is an irresponsible libertine, and perhaps an intellectual fraud as well. Nevertheless, he has managed (no thanks to him) to maintain a marriage and sire and raise two daughters in their teens; “your girls,” his wife calls them. Forrest and Marisa are vacationing in Italy, where she devotes her time to churches, Masses, and pious practices, when he receives a message from Gallatin, Georgia, informing him that the girls have mysteriously turned up from Rhode Island and been turned away by Aunt Emily Barron Hayes, an elderly relative living in town. Marisa refuses to leave Italy, and her husband flies back to the states and arrives in Gallatin to discover that his daughters never arrived, and that the origin of the message is a mystery. He sleeps with a girl he met on the flight from Rome, with near-tragic results when she goes into cardiac arrest in coitus, and is recognized by old friends and acquaintances of his youth, most of whom (the women especially) regard him as a monster, one of some 40 male townsmen who in the late 60’s slept with a young black wanton who insisted on being picked up by car on the street under cover of darkness and turning her trick on the back seat for no money. Forrest fell in love with her, or thought he did, before her gruesome murder, which he has since suspected he himself committed. Shortly after his arrival in Gallatin he meets the person who tricked him into coming, a light mulatto girl with whom he had an affair two decades before when he was teaching at Northwestern University, and who has remained obsessed with him ever since. But Hermia Watson turns out to be only the first revelation in a series of rapidly occurring discoveries that reveals to him his own past, and that of his family.
The narrative is extremely complex and involves constant shifts between the summers of 1969 and 2009 and a wide cast of characters whose identities are often difficult to follow, owing to oddly paired similarities in their names, and Arbery’s usage of Faulkner’s (and other literary modernists’) practiced vagueness in connecting pronouns with their proper names, the point being that for the moment the reader is inside the character’s head, not following his recorded thoughts on a black-and-white page. Bearings and Distances requires close attention to follow both the story and the dramatis personae, but the effort is worth it. Arbery’s theme is the connected past, the unbreakable connections between past and present, the degree to which people change throughout their lives and also to which they don’t change. Most important, Glenn Arbery insists, is the need for experience—for personal histories—to “close.” His title refers to Forrest’s work as a young man on a survey crew, and to the field notes surveyors take to make their results come together. Hence the following passage, taken from the novel’s final pages:
Brother stood over the field notes, but he wasn’t looking at them. His eyes seemed to be measuring Forrest. He held up a plumb line. Forrest felt a wild desire to hide.
Are these your notes?
I guess so. It’s been a long time.
It doesn’t close.
Doesn’t close? What do you mean?
It has to close or it’s no good. It’s all just wasted unless it closes, and it won’t close.
I went over it. I went back there and went over everything. All the angles and distances.
This sequence, like a frustration dream one can neither halt nor escape, repeating itself over and again while resolving nothing, is the book’s magnetic core. (The word close as it is used here lies in an entirely different linguistic dimension from that in which the vulgar, pseudopsychological, and ubiquitous term closure is situated.)
Bearings and Distances is a considerable achievement in construction, technique, narration, drama, characterization, human insight, and most other things I can think of that go to make a novel a fine novel.
[Bearings and Distances, by Glenn Arbery (Newberg, OR: Wiseblood Books) 336 pp., $11.00]