(Larry Carr has just won an Indie Book award for best first novel. My congratulations. Here’s what I had to say about Pancake Hollow Primer: A Hudson Valley Story when it appeared last year.)
Over coffee Larry Carr once asked me, Have you ever really felt at home where you lived? I knew what he meant. I’d had that experience of sitting across the table from a woman who asked, Do you really love me? And in my heart I’d answered no. Though I’ve lived in memorable places that have given me reams of writing material, such as gentrifying Hoboken in the 1980s or a Catskills log cabin in the later 1990s, I’ve always been a renter who knew that in the long run he was passing through. Owning your own home means worrying about the roof or finding a good plumber. It means paying a mortgage. It means you’re responsible for a host of things I’d rather not be bothered with. I’ve even seen my landlady out planting ant traps in the soil.
For years, Larry Carr was a theater professional and apartment dweller in Manhattan. Perhaps because he bought an upstate house later in life now that he teaches at SUNY New Paltz, he feels at home with an intensity that seems almost mystical. Do you own your home, he might ask, or does it own you? And, if it did, would that be such a bad thing?
Pancake Hollow Primer: A Hudson Valley Story, Larry’s new book, tells the fictional tale of Frank Closky, a troubled Gulf War vet, who inherits a rundown farmstead bequeathed by his 101 year old reclusive uncle who hadn’t done a spring cleaning in decades. To many of us, this rustic farmhouse built in the 1820s and upgraded through the 1950s might have a quaint appeal, but also be an eyesore. Not to Larry. He views this house as a healing chamber. “Frank had never owned things,” Larry writes. “He’d lived a life of the rented, the borrowed then returned, the found and cast off. Possessions were never part of his universe. He’d never been possessed. By anything or anyone. And now, he owned two centuries of things.”
This book, then, is the story of Frank being possessed by his possessions. In most novels the setting is the backdrop for the human drama. But this time the setting drives the story. It’s the old farmhouse and all that it contains—there’s a five page inventory at the start of the book like a cast of characters in a Russian novel that ranges from “mismatched handmade shoes used as wall insulation” to “one hood from a 1940s Oldsmobile” —that infuses Frank Closky with hope and energy. In some passages Larry leaves the human behind to write from the point of view of the barn or the pottery shards buried up the hillside. In Pancake Hollow Primer, the setting is not exactly alive, but it exerts its great powers over its inhabitants. Is this what it’s like to really feel at home? To find yourself channeling the forces of the trees and buildings standing quietly by, challenging you to pay attention? If so, I can understand the gleam in Larry’s eye when he asked the question.
Perhaps because these feelings are alien to me, I found this work deeply touching. Home really is worth finding for Frank Closky, perhaps for all of us. Pancake Hollow Primer (Larry himself lives on Pancake Hollow Road) is also intriguing for being an amalgam of prose and poetry. Larry has called it “metafiction” but I wouldn’t damn it with a term that smacks of Thomas Pynchon. It’s very readable, very down to earth, very enjoyable. Here’s one of the poems from a “Diary” section.
Wood and Water
How romantic they make it sound.
But in the heat of day,
when wood and water call you
to the field and battle lines are drawn—
it’s they who’ve come to win the day.
The density of water.
The awkwardness of wood.
The weight of either can kill you
three times over.
Wood and water mean no harm.
It’s just their way.
In their stillness
they watch you evaporate,
or become seasoned, ready for the fire.
And even in the sweat of night’s splintered sleep,
there is no oneness with wood and water.
There’s only the next day’s battle
to plan a dozen different ways—
when muster sounds
and battlelines are drawn again.
Chop and Carry.
This is what we do.
This is what we do.