Michael Pearson

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With his new novel, Lost Nation, Jeffrey Lent has proven that there are second acts in American literature. Following on the success of his first novel, In the Fall, Lent has produced a second book with the same sort of tragic power and dignity.

The comparisons that have been made between Lent and Cormac McCarthy are understandable: both writers have mastered the art of the unspoken. Perhaps both learned from Hemingway that poetry and truth can be found in what is never said. But Lent is an original, no imitator of McCarthy or Hemingway or anyone else, for that matter. He is a writer of such breathtaking talent and honesty that one feels compelled to group him with the greats of American literature. But, finally, he stands alone, as all true writers do.

In this follow-up to In The Fall, a young woman finds a way to survive in a brutal landscape.

A novel of brutal originality, Lost Nation is reminiscent of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! or McCarthy's The Crossing—both tragic tales of secrets circling in their own slow way toward truth. Blood, the main character of Lost Nation, could be a scion of Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen, a man with a soul like a closed wound and the morality of a panther. His two sons, young men of taciturnity and deep feeling, are reminiscent of Boyd and Billy Parham in The Crossing. But Sally, the teenage prostitute that Blood wins in a card game in Portland, Maine, transcends any female found in the work of the great novelists. The kind of young woman a man like Blood had ceased hoping for, Sally is everything he did not deserve, a woman who finds a way to face the world without flinching, who finds a way to survive with her soul mainly intact.

And the world Lent creates is not an easy place in which to survive. Set in mid-19th century New England in a lost place known as Indian Stream, the book opens in familiar epic territory, in medias res, with Blood in hobnailed boots and rotting leather breeches, leading an oxcart with the barefoot Sally tied behind it and a mastiff hound named Luther trailing alongside. Heading into the bleak wilderness carrying rum and stores of supplies to set up shop on the edge of civilization, Blood is running from something in his past, in himself something that makes it easy for him to use other people hard. He opens up a tavern and sells Sally's services to the locals, but she is not some waif, helpless and adrift in a world of men. Sally is a match for Blood and for the trappers and outlaws who compose her toughened clientele in Indian Stream, and through the hardness that life has created within her, she is able to maintain her strength of spirit.

Lent creates a strange, violent landscape dotted with corpses, decapitations, rapes, suicides, masturbating monkeys, hangings and slit throats, but it's not the strangeness one is left with, rather the odd familiarity of a dream come clear. The whole book has a sort of power and heartbreaking truth to it, a quality of something long forgotten and now remembered with brilliant clarity. Each time the story takes a turn, you think you know where the road is heading, until Lent opens up a new path in the plot. Which brings me to my penultimate point: this book is a mystery tale, of sorts. It unravels its truths in its own fashion, slowly peeling away one reality after another, and therefore it would be unfair for this reviewer to reveal any more of the story. So, finally, read it.

Dr. Michael Pearson directs the Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University. 

With his new novel, Lost Nation, Jeffrey Lent has proven that there are second acts in American literature. Following on the success of his first novel, In the Fall, Lent has produced a second book with the same sort of tragic power and dignity.

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The relationship between Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald stands alongside Frieda and D.H. Lawrence or Elizabeth and Robert Browning as one of the legendary literary love stories of all time. Fitzgerald wrote lyrical and trenchant fiction about the Jazz Age, and with The Great Gatsby he crafted one of the most moving and memorable American novels of the 20th century. It might be argued that Zelda was both the source of his emotional fire and a central factor in his disintegration. For Zelda, it seems, Scott served the same dual role. In two decades of marriage, they managed to transform a vale of fame and talent and passionate love into a tragic landscape of drunkenness, mental illness and never-ending debt.

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda, a collection of correspondence edited by two University of Maryland professors that spans a 22-year period, includes a few dozen previously unpublished letters. It would be more apt, perhaps, to call the volume "Mostly Dear Scott," for the majority of letters are from Zelda. Yet there are enough responses from her husband to give credibility to the title and, more importantly, to give a sense of the often sad symbiosis of their relationship.

Scott Fitzgerald was a famous novelist by the age of 24, thanks to the astonishing success of This Side of Paradise. His love for Zelda was made into a metaphor in The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, as well as many short stories. His fictions were made of their life together, and their life seemed the stuff of fiction. The letters between Scott and Zelda trace the arc of their love its great passion, its failures and its enduring strengths. Scott made himself into the famous man that Zelda Sayre needed to marry, and she tried to be the proper accessory. As she wrote in an early letter to him, "I feel like you had me ordered and I was delivered to you to be worn. I want you to wear me, like a watch-charm or a button hole bouquet to the world." She professed not minding to be "pink and helpless," but she soon thirsted for her own identity as dancer, as writer or as painter. She had talents in each art but not enough to make her name stand on the same plane as her husband's. She wrote to him, "I want to work at something, but I can't seem to get well enough to be of any use in the world." The beautiful Alabama belle was tormented with mental illness. Her extended stays in mental institutions drained Scott's money and separated the couple by a continent, forcing them to communicate with letters. Scott supported Zelda in the expensive hospitals and their daughter, Scottie, in costly schools, often through hackwork and Hollywood script writing. But, as Zelda wrote to Scott a year before his death, "Nothing could have survived our life." And, of course, she was right not the life they created, nor the one that rose up to meet them, not even the one they dreamed about when they first met.

Scott died of a heart attack in 1940, while he was in the process of completing what many think might have turned out to be one of his finest works, The Last Tycoon. Thirty people showed up for Scott's funeral. As with Gatsby, it seemed, the famous had forgotten him. Zelda died in 1948, burned beyond recognition in a fire in Highland Hospital, a mental institution near Asheville, North Carolina. The inscription on the Fitzgeralds' shared tombstone reads: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Dr. Michael Pearson directs the Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University.

 

The relationship between Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald stands alongside Frieda and D.H. Lawrence or Elizabeth and Robert Browning as one of the legendary literary love stories of all time. Fitzgerald wrote lyrical and trenchant fiction about the Jazz Age, and with The Great Gatsby he crafted one of the most moving and memorable […]

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