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The Boston Globe: A Reading Life

Donald Harington: A compelling 'undiscovered continent'

Some years back, on short notice, I was hired to come to Paris to write a filmscript. For the long flight over, I snared a novel, Ekaterina, by an author I didn't know. As the plane rose from JFK, I read the first sentences, You were from a land far away, and, as we sank towards Orly's embrace, reached the final pages.

All this — the novel's expatriate writer, its mutability and interrogations of identity, its ghosts and dense textures — seemed appropriate to my abrupt decamping for Paris. The novel's startling second-person narrative immediately drew me in, made me a participant in the story. It also drew me into Donald Harington's world, "a world of sly humor, warm eroticism, and deep personal passions." I've since read every book Harington has published, and believe him to be one of America's great contemporary authors.

These books are as different from one another as from that exemplar I read years ago high above the Atlantic. Before engagement I knew only that Ekaterina had something vaguely to do with favorite novels of mine, Lolita and Pale Fire; after, I turned to the others with surprise. All seemed to be about a fictional Ozark town called Stay More. His work was worlds away from what a lit'ry education had taught me to treasure — much closer, in fact, to outriders I'd found on my own.

I'd always known to what territory I belonged, even if I had no map for it. Now I found myself threaded into this world of folk tales, restless ghosts, endless self-reference, storytellers who never seem to run out of breath, novels echoing the very tucks and folds, hills and "hollers" of our minds. The map comes into being only as you traverse it.

For all their sprawl, salvage and subterfuge, Harington's books are of a piece — the quirkiest, most original body of work in contemporary U.S. letters.

There are twelve of them, eleven novels, another traveling incognito as nonfiction, and that such an astonishingly original writer could remain so little known, even in today's aliterate culture, is shocking. Fred Chappell calls Harington's work "an undiscovered continent." So it is. Yet despite their accessibility and deeply human qualities, Harington's novels have never made the break into general readership. Nor has much critical attention been paid them. Recently, however, The Southern Quarterly devoted a fine special issue to Harington's work.

Born in 1935 in Little Rock, Donald Harington spent summers with his grandmother in the Ozark town of Drakes Creek, possibly a model for Stay More. At age 12, meningitis carried off much of his hearing. An MFA in studio art from the University of Arkansas led to years of teaching art on the east coast, until 1978 and a return to Arkansas.

From Ekaterina: "The small liberal arts New England college where he'd been teaching art history had suddenly gone defunct through mismanagement and declined enrollment. His life was filled with deaths: His college was dead, his marriage was dead, his father was dead, his current novel was dead, his relationship with his publisher was dead, his ties with New England were dead."

Harington's first novel, Cherry Pit (1965), tells of an Arkansas native who comes home to Little Rock from Boston only to become entangled with his past. His name, tellingly, is Cliff (impermanence, peril) Stone (stability, invulnerability). Such are the final pages of the novel that we're never sure the whole narrative's not been dream or lie. The seminal Lightning Bug came five years later. Then, in rapid succession, Harington published two marvelously ambitious, complex novels, Some Other Place. The Right Place. in 1972, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks in 1975. Then, from 1975 until 1986, no new work.

What Steve Reed writes of Lightning Bug, "a triumphant, comical end run around any notion of a straightforward narrative," can be said of all Harington's books. It was here that he came fully to his own style, an amalgam of physicality, high and low comedy, oral history, sly feints and sleight of hand, cat's cradles of interweaving narrative.

Harington's central metaphor, always, is the storyteller. In Butterfly Weed legendary Stay More citizen Doc Swain tells the story of his life to Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph who, years later, retells it, enhanced, to Harington himself. Some Other Place spins its web off congeries of newspaper pieces, journal entries, multiple points of view, pages of poetry, the commentary and dialogue of a ghost.

When in doubt, Chandler wrote, have a man come in the door with a gun in his hand. With Harington, that man or woman's more likely to be brandishing a story.

In Ekaterina Harington's doppelganger lays out his four principles of writing: Extravagance. Outrage. Exaggeration. Offense. Extravagance, he explains, means literally "wandering beyond" — beyond the conventional into the original and outrageous. Outrage is closely related to the French outre, "deviating from what is usual or proper," good fiction always being eccentric. How does one deviate into wandering beyond? By heaping. By piling word upon word. Exaggeration means literally "piling up," magnifying, bending "reality" to a new truth, often at the risk of offending. Offense comes from the Latin for "to strike against." Fictionists must always strike against something: convention, putative "reality," bourgeois morality, philistine taste.

"The lightning bug flashes to find...The flashing is of loss, and yearning." Harington and his characters want desperately to hold on to the past, to all that's gone before, all the people who've gone before.

The great writer doesn't simply do things better than anyone else, he does what no one else can do at all. Is there anything in our literature, or in anyone else's, like The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks?

"I hate endings," Harington says. "Of all aspects of writing, the one I hate the most is ending a novel....I am constantly experimenting with ways to avoid allowing a novel to end." Characters recur. Stories reiterate, proliferate. Latha Bourne trails her tales through novel after novel. Daniel Montross floats to the surface again and again. Each novel, in the final pages, shifts into future tense.

Harington's latest novel, With — seeking a publisher — tells the story of a seven-year-old girl abducted by a pedophile and kept captive in an Ozark location so inaccessible that even after she turns the abductor's own shotgun against him she's unable to leave. His next will tell of a Depression-era moviemonger carrying films, like an itinerant preacher, to far-flung locations. It will speak to the importance of entertainment in American life, Harington says, "not to mention our loss of Ozark traditions and way of life."

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