Wild at heart
Roger Clarke feels a sensuous touch amid the chainsaw scars
Saturday 22 July 1995
by Paul Watkins
Faber, pounds 14.99
Paul Watkins has been called the new Hemingway, and he is certainly an impressive storyteller. He writes unselfconsciously about American "real men'' wrestling with life and grizzly bears and women and each other. His narratives are simple and muscular, but not as cinematic as some critics maintain. Watkins believes in myth and in the simple, sensory experiences of myth. Yet his books are sometimes caricatured for their Indiana Jones adventuring.
His new book, set in a logging community in North America, reads like Twin Peaks as it might have been written by Sam Shepherd. As green activists and greedy loggers wander round the woods of the Canadian border - the conflict at the heart of - one almost hopes they will strip off and pile into a "sweat-lodge'' to sort the whole thing out with some healthy male bonding and dancing.
But there's also a sensuous, slightly feminine aspect of Watkins's writing which is a constant pleasure. The description of the eco-terrorist Gabriel living off the land, taking birch sap from a tree to boil and eat, or crushing blueberries against his tongue, reminds us of Thoreau's Walden and the druidic side of those Mayflower settlers: God found in the naked simplicity of nature. Watkins has an intense natural gift for narrative. His story rushes the reader along like a salmon river in spate.
Of course, there are flaws. All Watkins' male characters are the same - mostly driven loners and sexually shy, too. His women? Vague shadowy figures who baffle men in their Lawrentian desire for them. There's so little disease in Watkins' book as to be uncanny - and also slightly enchanting, as if we've chanced into some parallel world untouched by modern complexities. The ugliness here is elemental and has always existed; men struggle with deeds to become better men. In one scene, the logger Coltrane is in a truck with the lawman Dodge, and Coltrane hazards a guess at what Dodge is thinking which is "the worst thing one man can think of another'.' We're not told what this might be. (I've remained puzzled. What can it be? That he hangs out washing?)
The story is simple. When the main character, Jonas Mackenzie, tries to cover up a logging accident by planting a nail in a pine tree and blaming it on conservationists, he can little imagine the consequences. Mackenzie's vendetta against the woodland (a tree fell on him) costs him and everyone he employs dearly. A real eco-terrorist turns up, and Mackenzie has to hire another ex-soldier to take him.
The narrative is a catalogue of death and mutilation from bear attacks (three), knife wounds, splintered bone, crushed cartilage, chainsaw slashes and bullet holes. Yet Watkins can astonish with his delicacy; when Gabriel takes a job locally as cover and rents part of the house he was brought up in, the inexpressible anguish of returning to one's childhood home under such circumstances is very subtly rendered.
To read this book is wildly exhilarating, like several days' orienteering through Yellowstone Park with a slightly self-absorbed guide. This is entirely to his credit. He's not Hemingway, he's his own man. To hell with post-modernism. Watkins just sits and whittles that stick and waits for the bears to roar out of the darkness.
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