The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is Likely to Move You

By Rachel Joyce
Random House, 2012, 978-0812993295
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By outward appearances, Harold Fry is about as ordinary as they come. He lives in Kingsbridge, a small village in the English countryside of Dartmoor, where he spends time in his garden and largely avoiding his wife, Maureen. Harold is the poster boy for what Henry David Thoreau labeled “lives of quiet desperation.” Now an old-age pensioner (retiree), Harold has been the classic “must’nt grumble” Englishman who never made waves, and consequently never made a splash. He dutifully served a tyrannical boss at a local brewery–though he hasn’t had a drink in decades–sired a son who despised him, and managed to be such a disappointment to Maureen that the couple have separate bedrooms. At his own request, he had no retirement party at the brewery–not that anyone would have cared one way or the other.

If you can make such an individual the center of your debut novel and leave readers deeply moved, you’ve got a bright career in front of you. This book was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize; it didn’t advance to the next round, but Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which did win, had better be damned good to make me believe it was more deserving. Harold Fry’s life changes when he gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a mousy former colleague he hasn’t seen in over 20 years. It’s essentially a goodbye letter, as Queenie is in a Berwick-upon-Tweed hospice, dying of inoperable cancer. Harold scribbles his condolences and walks down the road toward the postbox… and keeps on walking.

Thus begins Harold’s unlikely pilgrimage. A set of ordinary circumstances leads Harold to believe that he can walk to Berwick, over 600 miles to the north, and that his odyssey will save Queenie. And so Harold walks, an old man wearing a tie, a sports coat, casual trousers, and a pair of boat shoes. The rest of the novel details the people he meets, the questions he ponders, the things he learns, and the unlikely phenomenon he becomes. No one, not even Harold, knows exactly what he hopes to accomplish–maybe it’s just that something had to change, or maybe it’s something more profound. Maybe it’s a miracle.

This unpretentious gem of a novel is miraculous all on its own. It’s about an old man walking, but it’s also about how we lose the things we once held dear and whether it’s possible to recover them, and about the kindness of some strangers and the unutterable vileness of others. It’s about hope and disappointment, dreams and reality, things extraordinary and prosaic, courage and foolishness, and when to remember and when to forget. It’s also the most affecting and deeply moving novel I’ve read in quite some time.—Rob Weir


The Dog Stars Humanizes the Apocalypse

By Peter Heller
Knopf, 2012, ISBN: 978-0307959942
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If you’re a fan of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road, you’re likely to enjoy Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. Like McCarthy, Heller sets his novel in the near future, just a few years after the world has gone horribly wrong. In this case, a flu-like pandemic has wiped out much of the world’s population—think the Doomsday scenarios associated with outbreaks such as SARS, AIDS, swine flu, and the West Nile virus. Entire cities die, governments collapse, most wildlife is extinct or endangered, and the law of the jungle prevails. Heller isn’t likely to be elected a future president of the Optimists Society. In his bleak world, survivors do not bond or cooperate; the world degenerates into vicious tribalism. The astute thing to do is kill anyone entering your compound rather than risk that that person is a disease carrier. Moreover, in this Malthusian nightmare in which resources of all sort are dwindling, chances are better that a wayward visitor is part of a murderous gang seeking to capture one’s food and supplies. Or so our protagonist, Hig, is told repeatedly by camo-wearing Bangley, the crusty old coot with whom he shares a fortified compound on the edge of an airport that once served a slice of Colorado Yuppie suburbia.

Bangley knows weaponry like the back of his hand and he’s handy with all manner of tools and machines. He might be a crafty survivalist, a psycho, or a hybrid of both, but if there’s such a thing as an apocalyptic Odd Couple, he and Hig are it. Hig has the heart of a tragic poet. He is haunted by his wife’s death some nine years earlier and yearns for the days in which he fished trout from Colorado streams. There are just two things that keep him going, the companionship of his ageing dog Jasper, and at least ten-years’ worth of usable aero gas for the Cessena he uses to get forage for supplies and search for something, anything, else that might be within a tank full’s range. In fact, he and Jasper take periodic hikes into the mountains, just to smell the pines, shoot the occasional deer, and fish for about all that’s left in the rivers: bottom-dwelling suckers.  Bangley thinks he’s a damned fool, and he might be right.

This is a novel about isolation, loneliness, and the nature of humanity. What is it that makes us human? Bangley thinks it’s a full stomach and a secure perimeter, but Hig is pretty sure that humans need something beyond the mere gratification of physical needs. We pretty much know from the outset that the Cessena is the book’s Chekov’s gun, and that Hig will eventually head out to see if he can rediscover his own humanity. Some of the ensuing adventures are terrifying, some deeply affecting, others highly improbable, and a few a bit hackneyed. But it’s hard to escape thinking about the question that occupies Hig: If life were reduced to its bare rudiments, what would any one of us need to differentiate ourselves from a dog or a trout?

Do I make this book sound a bit like The Road collided with A River Runs Through It? That wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, but The Dog Stars has enough original spark to make it more than a derivative mash-up. For a post-apocalyptic novel whose title riffs off a star constellation, Jasper, the heavens, and flight (of various sorts) it also contains–dare I say it?–a lot of humanity. –Rob Weir


Darlingside a Promising Band

Pilot Machines
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You might expect wall-to-wall bluegrass from a band with a name such as Darlingside, especially given that it’s a string quintet that features high tenor vocals, cello, mandolin, banjo, guitar, and bass (plus a makeshift drum kit). Don’t get too comfortable with your label, though, as these Pioneer Valley residents also like to plug in their acoustic instruments—including a skeletal cello–and, as one of their songs puts it, “blow the house down.” Darlingside is an impossible-to-pigeonhole ensemble capable of pumping out bluegrass when the mood strikes, but also of venturing into progressive rock and spinning off some classical passages. A lot of the music is atmospheric in the way that musical renegades such as Bela Fleck like to mix it, with vocals subsumed in a thick mix in which frenetic cello, fiddle, and mandolin often punch through the mix. On song ssuch as “The Woods” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tly5ObwBOOo or “Drowning Elvis” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tly5ObwBOOo it’s as if McKendree Spring, a progressive folk band from the 1970s, reappeared and merged with Snow Patrol.  As documented in “The Company We Keep,” Darlingside was a group of friends before it was a band. There is an intuitive ease between instrument and voice that comes from such familiarity, and also moments in which results feel too interior—like a musical moment in which you had to be there to get it. But give the lads props for trying to evolve something unique. There’s plenty here to suggest we are witnessing the first step in what will become a long stride.