The last time we heard Jess Kirkman tell stories about his father’s wondrous, humble life was in I Am One of You Forever (1985), a work of power and humor and charm. That book reminded me, however, that the word “novel” has hardly any meaning nowadays, for the work seemed a suite of stories united by a common narrator and single setting, but no more.

The distinction I am trying to make, if it is a legitimate one, is in no sense a deprecation of Fred Chappell’s writing. I mean only to say that a suite is not a symphony; that The Unvanquished is not Absalom, Absalom! Of course I’d rather re-read The Unvanquished than any number of contemporary “novels.” And I’m very glad I read both I Am One of You Forever and Brighten the Corner Where You Are, particularly so when I reflect upon the larger context of their publication. Fred Chappell writes with so much assurance and humor, he gives such delight and surprise, that he has distinguished himself among his peers as a fiction writer—never mind his even greater career as a poet. A look at what passes for fiction these days probably means Fred Chappell looks better than even he is. I mean, have you tried to read Mary Gordon’s The Other Side, or aren’t you tired of living yet?

To get down to cases, we have here a day in the life of Joe Robert Kirkman as told by his son, who in turn is barely a presence in his own narrative, though he is a knowing narrator for all that. The son is, like the father, a spinner of tall tales, one who lives in that world of the imagination in which we can talk to animals—and they can talk back. In that world anything can happen, and does. World and dream merge, and at the end Joe Robert is a giggling witness to his own dream. He declares, “All day long I have been trying to tell a lie and I haven’t had even a whiff of success. It would be difficult for me to explain to you how nearly impossible it is to tell a lie. . . . Used to, I could tell a dozen lies before breakfast and not even break a sweat.” There the text seems to allude to another in which a character famously declares, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” and which finally and lyrically asks us, Life, what is it but a dream? Joe Robert Kirkman lives in a wonderland of his own perceptions, or of his own devising, or of his son’s evocation—depending on how you look at it.

This world in which anything can happen must somehow also be one in which nothing and no one is to be taken for granted. The most mundane experience is. of the earth, earthy, and partakes if not of the divine order, then of the pagan realm, before this world was desacralized:

Now wasn’t this the sweetest part of the day, milking the easy cows? Nudging head and shoulder into the comfortable flanks, washing the teats and squeezing them gently at first in case of soreness and gradually building into rhythm, stream after straight stream in a pulse as regular as the stately heart of the animal, bright jets of milking to fill the pail with warm lace, with delicate foam that touched his knuckles like a spiderweb. These days, these hours were of life the cream supreme . . .

But such a static moment is typical of this tale only in its lyricism. Most of Joe Robert’s long Friday is rife with action, interaction, and reversals. When, at three in the morning, he attempts to intimidate his hunting companions with a tall tale about a devil-possum, he finds himself climbing a tree to go capture the thing. When he rescues a little girl from drowning, he is rewarded in a way he never conceived of When, as a schoolteacher, he must confront the parents of a wounded veteran and former student, the result is not one he could have anticipated—or the reader either.

The “curious mixed-up day” includes episodes of instruction in “General Science,” celebrations of Huxley and Darwin, defenses of academic freedom, memories of childhood conflicts with a tenant family, an encounter with a secret memorial for the victims of war, and a phantasmagoric run-in with a goat on a rooftop—one who makes some striking suggestions.

When the schoolteacher finally gets his class on a roll, his play-Socrates runs away with the day’s lesson and makes mincemeat of that teacher’s pretensions. Joe Robert’s long-awaited confrontation with the school board becomes a nonevent, even a mystery. A journalist is the news she purports to transcribe. An innocent high-school student is not what she seems, not by a long shot.

Surrounded by wonders and dazzled by revelations, Joe Robert Kirkman may indeed be the Aeneas that he thinks his son sees him as. But if he is less than an epic hero, he is still a man who knows the world—”The world was plenty.” That world is both natural and supernatural, a world of visions and dreams and flesh-made words. The world in its fullness of body and spirit is the world of Fred Chappell’s fiction. The least we can say of it is that it’s a world well worth living in while we recreate it by scanning the words it’s made of The most we can say of it is that if you can find better fiction this season, read that. If not—a big if—then read this.


[Brighten the Corner Where You Are, by Fred Chappell (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 212 pp., $15.95]