“The Secret Wisdom of the Earth“, by Christopher Scotton, Grand Central Publishing ( a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.), on sale January 6, 2015
Your long-winded literary correspondent has been challenged to make you want to read yet another debut novel. It takes him a long time (surprise) and many parenthetical digressions (surprise) to get to the point. But, eventually, he does. (If you would rather — skip to HERE’S WHERE I FINALLY TALK ABOUT THE BOOK bolded headline below.)
My friend, Marlene, proprietor of The Curious Iguana [click here], gave me an advance reader copy of Christopher Scotton’s debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth. It is a wonderful thing to belong to a literary community, to be invited into the world of those who love books, from sharers and sellers like Marlene, to the marvelous authors, journalists, agents, editors, publishers, and other readers who make up what I call the LiteraryTwitterati — or LitTwits — on Twitter who happily (and at some great length) welcome you into the world of words and wit I think of as a sort of much wider, much kinder, much more embracing, virtual reality Algonquin Round Table.
Meaning, because I write (now and then) about books and because I have labeled myself a lover of things literary, I have been *blessed by my inclusion in this world I describe. While most of the books about which I write are personal purchases, I am sometimes sent (or, given) ARCs. I am ridiculously excited to be so gifted.
But, I don’t write about books in which I can’t find enjoyment, those I can’t in good conscience recommend to others. Life is too short. I don’t have time to read all of the books I want to read. The stack of “to be read” grows all the time — thanks, in large part, to Marlene and the TwitLits. When people talk about books in person, on Twitter, on the many blogs I visit, I am compelled to further research the writer and the book and often end up ordering a copy. I buy lots of new books from Curious Iguana, and, too, lots of one cent books from the evil empire, not to mention, I visit used bookstores including the regularly held church book sales in this area and a great local storefront operated by the Girl Scouts where every hardback is $1 and paperback 50 cents.
I have a lot of books to read. I read a lot of books. I write about only a few.
All of which is to say, here I am, writing about Christopher Scotton’s debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.
There is a fever in the literary world to discover the new, the next, tomorrow’s big thing. Publishing, of late, has been unkind to mid-list authors, preferring the signing of first-time authors, heralding them unto hotness, hoping for huge sales. One reads of six and seven-figure advances, sees covers of debut novelists’ work awash in blurbs by respected, revered figures in the industry. There is a whole sub-industry of MFA programs turning out these tyro-celebs, one after another, until some of us — and I hasten to add that I have submitted to an agent or two myself without success and so part of this is base-level jealousy — can barely bring ourselves to read debut novels any longer if the are 1)over-blurbed or 2)written by someone drum-beaten as an Iowa (or similar) program product.
I’ve read quite a few debut (and second and third) novels this year by writers who were cultivated in those MFA programs, and, well, here’s the thing. I was — once upon a time — in the theatre and dance world. It is entirely possible to teach someone — almost anyone — the technique of acting (or dance) so that they reach a level of competency. These trained technicians will be able to act or dance the given role without embarrassment, like drones in business, show up on time, hit the mark, be a cog in the machine, keep it running. Which is to say, in the good-old-days, before everyone went to college and the world was so freaking codified and monetized, there seemed to be a lot more great artists. Now, everyone must be trained in one or another program.
I get that. I respect the desire to legitimize the arts by standardizing a level of expectation, accepting a particular criteria as defining competency, and measuring product by its conformity to those requirements.
But, the things is, the result of the enforcement of these fundamentals is that what gets published (or produced, in film and theatre and dance) is all too often the expected, the boring, the conformist.
You can’t teach or train someone to be Sarah Bernhardt. Nijinsky. Meryl Streep. Baryshnikov. Or, Dorothy Parker (who dropped out of high school, like me) or Joan Didion. In my teaching career I was *blessed (there’s that word again, really, READ THE NOTE) twice with the gift of being allowed to mentor a truly gifted — probably genius — performer. I did teach them “technique” — making sure that should their genius fail, they’d have technique on which to fall back — but the real challenge of teaching (and publishing, and producing art) is NOT to mold the gifted into technique-purveyors — WE HAVE ENOUGH OF THOSE — but to encourage the rare genius to blossom in all of her unique-ness; to, in fact, RESIST conforming and techniquing and showing-up in competence and instead, to risk, to fail spectacularly along the way, sometimes, to make something shining and new and never before seen, read, heard.
Which bring me to the book at hand (at last) —
HERE’S WHERE I FINALLY TALK ABOUT THE BOOK
Here is the synopsis offered at ChristopherSctotton.com [click here for site]:
After witnessing the death of his younger brother in a terrible home accident, 14-year-old Kevin and his grieving mother are sent for the summer to live with Kevin’s grandfather. In this peeled-paint coal town deep in Appalachia, Kevin quickly falls in with a half-wild hollow kid named Buzzy Fink who schools him in the mysteries and magnificence of the woods. The events of this fateful summer will affect the entire town of Medgar, Kentucky.
Medgar is beset by a massive Mountaintop Removal operation that is blowing up the hills and back filling the hollows. Kevin’s grandfather and others in town attempt to rally the citizens against the ‘company’ and its powerful owner to stop the plunder of their mountain heritage. When Buzzy witnesses the brutal murder of the opposition leader, a sequence is set in play which tests Buzzy and Kevin to their absolute limits in an epic struggle for survival in the Kentucky mountains.
Redemptive and emotionally resonant, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is narrated by an adult protagonist looking back on the summer when he sloughed the coverings of a boy and took his first faltering steps to manhood. It is a novel that challenges the reader to consider the complicated economic choices facing the rural poor.
In the vein of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth succeeds in being more than a story about a boy or the remote communities of the American heartland. It’s a novel about the human heart and its deeply held mysteries.
You can also read all sorts of praise by all sorts of people at the site. I want to do justice to Mr. Scotton’s accomplishment. I want you to buy this book. I want it to be read and appreciated. But, even more, unlike many of the “debut novels” I read this year, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth made me want to read the author’s next novel.
Mr. Scotton — make no mistake — is a writer. But, unlike the tyro-products of the proliferating MFA programs multiplying like Joyce Carol Oates novels, he is a writer not because he has learned a formula, but, rather, because he has lived a life, learned from it, and found the voice to tell those stories.
This is a book with a voice. This is a book wherein a grown-up who has lived and loved and lost and found and foundered and been fooled and been foolish and failed and won and struggled and questioned has survived to tell the tale.
I want you to buy and read this book NOT BECAUSE it is going to be the next big publishing thing — although it is certainly being given that well-deserved push- but no, I want you to read it because it doesn’t fit cozily into a genre. It’s not Bildungsroman or coming of age or magical/mythical symbolism or Southern Gothic or To Kill a Mockingbird or … it’s a debut novel by a gifted writer, shaped refreshingly outside the bounds of MFA-formula writing. It’s fresh because it’s old-fashioned, if that makes sense? It’s a book book.
A nice, long, beginning, middle, end story. There are some horrible people. There are some wonderful people. Good things happen. Bad things happen. For good reasons. For bad reasons. Like life.
Yes, toward the last third I think it could have used some paring down. But, then again, this 1500+ word exegesis could use some cutting too, however, this is my blog — like Secret Wisdom is Mr. Scotton’s book — and we are entitled to our voices, and readers are entitled to skim or skip or say, “Yes, that’s who and what he is and I think I’d like to also read the next thing he writes.”
Trust me, read Secret Wisdom. You’ll want to read the next thing Mr. Scotton writes, too.
*NOTE ON USE OF WORD “BLESSED” – I try NOT to use the word “blessed” because I am so violently opposed to anything hinting at affirmation of organized religion, but, twice in this blog I felt the word was warranted. It has nothing to do with gods or deities, but, rather, to do with the giving of a gift. I have been gifted — trusted with — blessed in a completely non-religious way — although, in fact, were I religious, it would be a faith built around books and musical theatre, so, there you are. Thanks for reading. And sorry it took me twelve hours to remember I meant to *NOTE. Blame it on the ague.