The Lighthouse Road
Peter Geye
Odd is one of those second generation Norwegian types, laconic to a fault. And sometimes as we boat around with him and his six kegs of hootch on Lake Superior with him we might find him too laconic, even at age twenty-four or so when he decides to run away from his step-father Hosea Grimm from Gunflint, Minn. To Duluth. With his almost-mother Rebekah in tow.

Sheesh. Can you imagine running away with your forty-one year-old semi-mother to Duluth, Minnesota in mid-winter 1920 when you could have gone off to Chicago or San Francisco or noisy New Orleans?

Author Geye is not without narrative ability. When Odd is still in his teens he meets a friend's dare and walks into a bear cave filled with live bear and with her bear-swipe he loses part of his face and his left eye. His step-father Hosea patches him up best he can and finds and fits a glass eye for the hole.

    Odd sat up and looked at himself. He looked for a long time and didn't say anything. It was himself he saw but it wasn't. He blinked and despite all his conviction he felt tears welling in his right eye --- his good eye. He saw his right eye chalk over. The glass eye stared back, brown and too large and dry as chalk...

    "It's temporary, lad."

    "I heard you," Odd snapped. He used all his will to quell the tears. Blinked hard. And brought his face close to the mirror.

    "Listen to me, Odd. What the eye can't see, your heart will find."

    Odd looked up quickly, met Hosea's eyes. "I don't understand," he said.

    "Someday you will, son. Someday you will."

§   §   §

But in novel-making, what carries one along does not necessarily drive one along --- glass eyes, lust, and all. After Odd and Rebekah run away to Duluth they spend a fair amount of time nagging each other in their dingy Duluth apartment and I'm thinking that if I want to participate in a Nag Fest I can get a fair amount in my own pied-à-terre and don't have to spend half a winter in Duluth to do so.

There are diversions. Just to complicate the sensual scene at the very beginning Rebekah teaches Odd's mother --- called here Miss Edie --- about bubble baths. It's a fairly steamy scene which after Edie's eight bathless months in the Minnesota outback cooking for a bunch of loggers we get wet and warm and soapy in a friendly bubbly scene while Rebekah manages to get Edie in the buff in the tub, joins her, and declaims to this sweet innocent, "Don't be such a grouch, Miss Edie. In Chicago, we girls took our baths together all the time. It's fun!"

It's fun, some, the steam and such and the pinkish flesh after all these months trudging through the icy woods and swatting wolves and bears that follow one about in the wild up there in Minnesota. But the secret of a great novel over a mere good one has to do with pacing ... putting the characters through their paces with some purpose and sense of timing and getting the reader excited or agitated or sad or pensive or remorseful. Lighthouse Road may have its strange almost unbearable moments: Hosea Grimm's purchase --- outright purchase --- of Rebekah from a Chicago whorehouse; Odd's mother Thea having to live through getting raped on the kitchen table by him; Odd running before the gale in his near-swamped hootch boat.

But somehow the rhythm is askew and we find ourselves wanting to hurry the writing along so we can get on to our next novel, or next meal, or the next steam bath ... as the snow comes down endlessly outside.

One of the stumbling blocks to getting into Odd's odd life is the vocabulary. Since most of us have never been lumberjacks nor fisherman in turn-of-the-century Minnesota, there are some words that go right over our heads ... ultimately, I think, to the detriment of the story line:

    It shone dully on the puncheon floor.

    The trail up from the fish house was rutted and overhung with tamaracks.

    She was in charge of baking: biscuits and rye bread and larrigan pies. [He] could remember the camboose shanties of the seventies.

    He'd also ordered two dozen wooden mallets, nippers, a spokeshave, a sharpening stone, an assortment of ball-peen hammers and bucking irons.

    "We're not talking about hugags or agropelters here."

    "They smoked and drank from glass lowballs."

A small dose of arcane words can doll up any text, but after a bit I was thinking the book was not that much richer for it. Except for the presence of those six barrels of good Canadian whiskey lowballs into which Odd and the reader were able to nip into from time to time.

--- Lolita Lark
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