One has reason for low expectations.
So while I was sure I would enjoy Myron Brinig’s Wide Open Town as a historical document, I am both surprised and pleased to say that it is one of my favorite reads of 2015 and that it will find a permanent place on my book shelves.
The story is set in Butte, Montana (called Silver Bow in the novel) in 1910 when the city was the center of a tremendous mining boom. There are two story lines through the novel. The central story is about John Donnelly, an Irish immigrant who came to Butte like so many for the promise of high paid work in the mines, a place where a man with little or even no education could find steady employment. Donnelly falls in love with a local prostitute Zola, named after the French author by her mother who thought the name exotic. Their love affair cannot survive the economic realities of a working man’s life once the miner’s go on strike after their wages are cut.
I found the John Donnelly/Zola love story compelling, more than enough to make for an interesting novel, but the second plot was where the book really hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned.
John Donnelly uncle, Roddy Cornett, is the city’s town crier. Roddy goes about Silver Bow/Butte shouting messages, from advertisements for local business to the equivalent of classified ads. He is so good at this, has such a fine voice that he becomes a celebrity. Children follow him as he walks through the town, women admire him from the sidewalks, men buy him drinks. He makes a fine living. He is even asked to introduce President Theodore Roosevelt when he passes through on a whistle-stop tour.
But one day Roddy loses his voice completely for reasons no one can explain. He loses everything, his fame and his fortune. He is forced to live on his daughter’s charity, then to take a job as an assistant to the city dog catcher and finally to work as a board man, walking through the city wearing a sandwich board advertising reasonable prices at a local restaurant.
Roddy’s descent was what fascinated me most about Wide Open Town. An important man of words, even if he did not write the words himself, his loss moved me from the outset. Once he can no longer speak, he finds himself with so much he wants to say. This passage comes from the time he spends as a dog catcher, when he finally has to spend the night with the dogs he knows will be shot the following morning:
Waves of pity and grief swept over him. He had worked too long at this grim, horrible trade. He had been selfish, thinking only of himself, food and shelter for his body. The way the dogs kissed him, that was too much to bear. Free was a deep word and covered immense spaces over land and sea. To run free along a road, along a street, to climb a mountain, free! To swim a river, to stand under the sun, to lie in deep clover. Man is too much imprisoned. To travel over far countries, to talk to a Chinaman, an Indian, a Japanese. To sit and look long at a sunset, to eat by a campfire in the woods, to drive a dog sledge through the snow. To read free. To breathe free. To sit by a sick man or a woman or a child and comfort them and cool their foreheads. To stand under the stars. I never knew these things so well before, thought Roddy. Pain enlarges me. I grow vast with my pain and my understanding knows no limits. To kiss, to love, to lie with a woman or a man in sweet, untroubled bliss. To play an instrument in the band, to write a long letter to your beloved who is far away, to your companion who is in another city. To sit down and play a game of cards, poker or pinochle, to go to a theater, to stand under the cool silver lines of a shower. To come to an oasis in the desert, to swim in the surf…Life is so short for these incomparable joys and meanings. To write. “I love you,” to say “I love you,” and be free in your words and emotions. To be an author and write a story or a poem and see that it is good, very good. To sleep under warm blankets on a cold night, to dive into the waves of the ocean, to go fishing in the rivers, to drink good whisky and wine, to do things that God meant you to do…life is so short, let us be free. The world enlarges, the scene becomes magnified, the sun warms the land. The curtain rises, the actors appear, the music swells. Sleep is good and to wake is good. Let us release our anger and afterward let us be sorry. To lose your temper every now and then is good. Not to be a gentleman is sometimes very good. Life is so short, let us be free.
I know some modern readers will accuse Myron Brinig of overwriting, but I loved this passage. There is so much going on here. The way the narrator/author slips in when he talks about feeling one has written a good story. The way the author almost lets his own sexuality appear by saying “To kiss, to love, to lie with a woman or a man in sweet, untroubled bliss.” I love how “To read free” and “To breathe free” are placed side by side. And personally, lying under a warm blanket on a cold night is one of my favorite things in the world.
Roddy will set all of the dogs in the pound free in the next paragraph and lose his job as a result.
I love Roddy’s story in large part because he loves words. He loved them when he could speak, even more when he lost his voice. But in the end, he and I both know that the world is too big for words to express it all. In the novel’s closing pages Roddy gets his voice back, but only after he has learned this.
So I just love this novel. I wish there were some way for everyone to read Wide Open Town, but since I found my copy in a museum gift shop, it appears to have gone back out of print along will every one of Myron Brinig’s fourteen other novels.
This book counts as my first book in the Twenty Books of Summer reading challenge. 19 to go!!!