The Poet of Tolstoy Park
By Sonny Brewer (Ballantine)
It's a good time to be alive, especially if you love Southern literature. Once moribund, it is fast returning to its previous, hale condition, and if it has yet to produce another Faulkner or Welty, that's only because the dozens of quality authors who constitute its nascent renaissance are just now getting started. Every year a few more debut, and this year's first is Sonny Brewer and his novel, The Poet of Tolstoy Park.
Brewer's is the owner of Over the Transom Bookshop in Fairhope, Ala., chair of the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts, organizer of the annual Southern Writers Reading festival (also in Fairhope) and editor of Stories From the Blue Moon Café, now in its third volume. But until now he has yet to pen a book of his own.
The Poet of Tolstoy Park is set in the mid-1920s and revolves around Henry Stewart, a mildly eccentric retired professor in Idaho who, upon learning that he has a terminal case of tuberculosis, moves to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, just outside of Fairhope. There he has bought a 10-acre plotwhich he names Tolstoy Park, after his favorite authorand over the course of a year or so he builds a house. Or, rather, a domed, brick-and-concrete hut, which quickly draws the attention of the local population. The story is loosely based on an actual Henry Stewart, who built an actual domed hut and actually named his property after Leo Tolstoy. This in turn becomes Brewer's jumping-off point for his book's leitmotif, a meditation on death and friendship that draws heavily on the books and philosophies prevalent in Stewart's day.
Those hoping for the sort of blood-and-guts storytelling found in the work of Brewer's male contemporariesWilliam Gay, Tom Franklin, the late Larry Brownwill be disappointed. Very little actually happens in The Poet of Tolstoy Park. Stewart crosses words with a local and narrowly dodges a flying oyster shell. That, and a few hurricanes, are about it for the action.
But the book is better for it. Brewer's interest lies within the mind of Henry Stewart, though he is careful to avoid rendering his protagonist as an empty vessel for his own ideas. Brewer is concerned, first and foremost, with a paradox central to the human experience yet all too often forgotten: how does one at once prepare for one's death and continue to live one's life?
Stewart moves to Fairhope in part to separate himself from his sons and friends in Idaho. Like his hero Tolstoy, who soon before his death gave up his worldly possessions and went to live among peasants, Stewart wants to slough off his worldly connections in readiness for deathbelieving that, as Tolstoy wrote, "The more you transform your life from the material to the spiritual domain, the less you become afraid of death." But he soon finds this a difficult task: an affable, if occasionally maladroit, individual, Stewart makes new friends in Fairhope and, try as he might, cannot quite shed them.
The novel's narrative progress is secondary to Brewer's clever interplay of ideas gleaned from Tolstoy, Robert Frost and Ralph Waldo Emerson. This in itself makes for interesting reading. But Brewer doesn't abandon his obligation as a storyteller; in fact, he upends his own philosophizing by showing how lonely thoughts easily translate into lonely lives. Stewart's obsession with death, no matter how intellectually engrossing, can only take him so far because he eventually figures outin an epiphany dramatized by a fatal hurricanethat the answer to his paradox is an irony: death, a solitary act, is in its universality the ultimate common denominator.
Brewer's most glaring mistake is one common to first writers, particularly those who go the extra distance of imbuing their stories with actual ideas. At the end of an otherwise deftly told tale, he loses confidence in his ability to communicate his thoughts through his characters and the narrative structure. "If there were any way at all to feel deep inside some kinship with the strangers who constitute humanity," Brewer writes in the book's final pages, "it would have to be accomplished in the singular knowledge that we will all die." It's a clear rendering of the novel's thematic resolutionbut given that Brewer has spent the previous 220 pages building up to and then explicating, through his narrative, exactly that point, it's an almost patronizingly obvious statement.
Harsh? Not reallymore a note of frustration with an otherwise preternaturally fine first novel. Brewer has both the courage and the skill to inject moral and intellectual quandaries into his work, and if he is nervous about whether his readers will get his point, it's an understandable mistake. He has a gift; as he continues learning to use it, we will all be rewarded.
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