In one of Charles Dodd White’s earliest short stories, “The Sweet Sorrowful,” a clumsy do-gooder called Pendergast takes it upon himself to fill up an empty pond with water and trout so that the patients of a nearby children’s hospital can go fishing. His goal was “… to coax them from the wreck of death and set their minds toward a mystic beauty which, like all mystic things, was just a peaceable lie.” The story takes a tragicomic turn when Pendergast accidentally drives his truck into the water.
In White’s latest novel, In the House of Wilderness (Swallow Press, 2018), a mercurial drifter known as Wolf dumps a dead body in the river and then sits down to watch “the complicated patterning of water.”
The two scenes are connected by more than just the author or the distinctive poetic cadence of his prose. Like other characters in White’s work (Sinners of Sanction County, A Shelter of Others), Wolf and Pendergast are outcasts. They interact with society from the margins. One tries to do a good deed but ultimately botches it. The other one, Wolf, takes from society what he needs—food, stolen goods—and then disengages. He is not bound by any social contract and has no interest in remedying the wrongs of a world he rejects. The life he leads with his two “wives,” Winter and Rain, “afforded no room for the convenience of conscience. The real way of nature was to self-preserve, and it was that course they had committed themselves to long before.”
As they wander through Appalachia, Rain, the youngest of the two women, begins to feel the stirrings of that conscience and a yearning to settle down: “What a thing to belong somewhere, to feel the place sink its teeth into your heart, when every step you took was another gentle worry and shake that cut in a bit deeper, made the good deep pain of being home do something big inside your chest.”
Swayed until now by the charismatic Wolf, the magic is dispelled when Rain meets Stratton Bryant, a widower who lives in an old east Tennessee farmhouse. Bryant becomes a father-figure to Rain and a reminder that there is more to the world that Wolf shuns with his peaceable—but eventually brutal—lies.
In one particularly evocative scene, Stratton contemplates an image captured by his deceased wife Liza, a lauded photographer. According to Liza, Stratton recalls, her work sought “to make people more sensitive to their own suffering, to have respect for it. Otherwise, everything was in service to the human will, and anyone who knew the world knew that was impossible.”
Nietzsche once described the world as “a monster of energy” to be harnessed by the human will. Wolf appears to abide by this creed, attempting to will his world into existence. Rain, on the other hand, seems to agree with Liza. This clash of wills leads inexorably to violence.
The story builds up like a finely-tuned thriller and yet White’s trademark painterly prose—precise but elaborate, lyrical but never overwrought—gives the novel a dreamlike aura. These days in which taut, direct prose is considered the gold standard, and too many authors succumb to writing what Ben Lerner called “very inefficient television,” In the House of Wilderness is a reminder of the many untapped possibilities of language when explored by a master craftsman.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.