Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-06-123953-3

It was long ago that I bought the book, on a long, lone roadtrip southwest, in a favorite bookstore alongside the Rockies. I held it, carried it, kept it on my coffeetable, my nightstand, prolonging the sweet anticipation, knowing the coming reward. I have been (no hyperbole) in awe of Annie Dillard from the first encounter, decades ago, with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (winning Dillard the Pulitzer Prize). Finally, oh finally, picking up what I expect may be her final novel (I heard her interview on NPR at the very beginning of my trip southwest, in which she spoke of the arthritis in her fingers, the agony of the mechanics of writing), now immersed in the solitude of a retreat, I read. I read throughout the day, into the night, until I was done.

Yet never done. Dillard's ability to evoke light from dark, to remind us in an age when books wane in entertainment value against modern technology, of the divine in artistic creation, is, still, without comparison. I remain in awe of her gift. For half a century of bookworming, I have yet to find an author who can stand beside her.

See, nothing much happens. That in itself enthralls me. The literary master can paint a scene with words, leave out the excess of action (how I tire of it in our current entertainment venues) and the bore of high drama, yet evoke in us the deepest emotion, eventual revelation. Consider these opening lines in the prologue of the novel, introducing us to the Maytrees, a couple living on the very hook of Cape Cod, in Provincetown, the bohemian town of charming misfits and artists:

"The Maytrees' lives, the Nausets', played out before the backdrop of fixed stars. The way of the world could be slight, then and now, but rarely, among individuals, vicious. The slow heavens marked hours. They lived often outside. They drew every breath from a wad of air just then crossing from saltwater to saltwater. Their sandspit was a naked strand between two immensities, both given to special effects."

And so we enter the lives of these two, from their meeting in their youth, to the unfolding of their love, to its unfolding (not breaking), as Toby Maytree leaves his wife, Lou (along with their small child, Petie), for her best friend, (flaky, flashy, and flirty) Deary Hightoe. Only to return again when both near the end of their lives, and not without Deary (who somehow manages to remain humorously oblivious to how she has affected these two in what for her seems to be on the level of a change in scenery). Because by then, when Toby needs, when his world wavers, when his second wife falls fatally ill, and he himself equally so, where should he go but to the woman he knew he could depend upon, always. All of this against fixed stars. All of this against the backdrop of slow heavens.

Dillard never falls into a trap, never gets sucked into making the common, common. Without once naming the pain in Lou's heart at this infidelity, she still conveys its shattering. Its enduring. Its opening again in the wisdom of women. We sense only how this feminine wisdom and patience and strength is what holds the slow heavens in place. Why foolish acts fail to make the stars fall from that fixed place. And she does it with the precision of a poet.

While Dillard's dialogue is spare and infrequent, when she does use it, she allows the Maytrees to convey all we need to know in a quick moment, then moves on. When the errant once-husband returns home, now an old man, asking Lou's help to care for his ill wife, Deary, and him, this potential land mine moment becomes an elegant ballet:

"Not going to slug me?"

"I considered it, when Petie was a baby and you wore earplugs."

"Earplugs? I don't remember any earplugs. Actually, I ran off with Deary."

"I did notice that. You brute. Get some sleep."

"You're wonderfully ..."

She growled and he stopped. He was treating her like a stranger who was helping him change a tire.

Not that the fractures of a shattered heart were gone. Such wounds remain forever. Alone in her bed, her once-husband sleeping in the next room, Lou lies awake, tossed by the waves of twenty-year old ache. Such is love, however, if real. She remains loyal in the face of disloyalty, and so we witness what never wins medals, rarely receives acknowledgement or reward, but is the axis of a universe tossed by whim and impulse and sheer human stupidity.

A kind of loyalty in Toby returns, too, as if back on its compass needle to this, his north star. After Deary passes, Lou cares for Toby as he, too, grows ever more ill. Finally, he is bedridden, and because he had always so loved the ocean crashing against the spit of sand, there on the tip of the hook of Cape Cod, Lou moves his bed outside their graying, old house. They sleep together on the deck, under those same stars, to the sound of incoming and outgoing waves. She holds his hand. She reads to him. They trace together the patterns of constellations.

"Lou lay beside him, silent as bandages, her immense solitude so gloriously - he might say, for who will fault a dying man's diction? - broached. 'I wither slowly in thine arms, here at the quiet limit of the world.' She got up to stretch her long dress, and his body drooped to the low and midgey spot she left warm ... Around him her body, sawgrass, trash, seas, and skies altered, reeled, and gave way to dark..."

It is impossible to read Dillard without being changed. Moved. Transcended to a place where, for a too short moment, the stars reel around us, then move back into their rightful place, again.

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