Requiem by Fire
By Wayne Caldwell
Random House; 352 pp.
A few years ago, I hiked in an Ecuadorian jungle preserve. The park was bursting with energy: trees gleaming with rain and wild nesting bromeliads, jacamars and hummingbirds zooming and flitting, the river bursting with vivacity. It was a place of unspoiled, green and gushing nature.
What stopped me in my tracks, though was actually quite simple: Surrounded by ferns on the jungle floor was a pineapple plant, its single, unripe fruit resting like a studded jewel in its crown of spiky leaves.
I mentioned my find to the Belgian proprietor of the cabin I’d rented. Oh yes, he said breezily, there used to be a pineapple plantation there.
That memory arose while reading Wayne Caldwell’s Requiem by Fire. This gentle reminder of a novel is set in the North Carolina mountains, rather the Amazon basin, but it, too, shows that people have lived even in the remotest and seemingly wildest of placesand that they probably didn’t leave didn’t leave by choice. Requiem by Fire, a sequel of sorts to Caldwell’s debut novel, Cataloochee, is fiction from the author’s same little patch of Appalachia, but written in the spirit of historical memory and preservation.
In the 1920s, the U.S. government began to assert eminent domain over a chunk of the Smokies, enjoining inhabitants to sell land they had husbanded for generations (from which they had forcibly evicted its original tenants, the Cherokees). In 1940, FDR officially dedicated Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The park is America’s most visited, and the region is now home to ski resorts, dude ranches with wireless Internet and other tourist enticements. But the Smokies of the 1920s and ’30s were just getting electricity, and their denizens lived proudly hardscrabble lives. Early in Requiem by Fire, a lawyer and the feds lay down the new law: Sell now or sell later, but observe a ban on hunting, fishing, felling trees for firewood and burying the deadand then take less for the land. A pitched battlebetween gummint and folk, old and new, city and country, programmed conservation and inbred traditionseems imminent. The book’s first scene is a flashback of arson: Three mountain men burn down the Cataloochee schoolhouse. (That incident is historical fact, involving a man whose real name was, perhaps coincidentally, Caldwell. The author’s family goes back generations in the region.)
But this book’s title refers to a requiem by fire, not a trial, and the lawyer dispossesses the locals only of one of their fetching daughters, whom he marries and whisks off to Raleigh, never to reappear. The igniting conflict dissipates, and the book devotes itself instead to a languorous, fond account of the final years of a community destined for extinction, and a rather peaceable one. There are no standoffs or shootouts or corrupt politicians, no Lear-like raging, no keening Faulknerian lyricism. There’s plenty of burn, but much of it is either controlled or random, not malevolent. The book’s portentous title and morality-tale setup notwithstanding, it’s less a requiem than a wake, driven not by violence of mood or plot but by voluble affection and nostalgia.
Caldwell’s temperance is perhaps appropriate to the situation. If, as Faulkner once declared, “The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies,” aren’t 800 square miles of natural poetry worth nudging 1,100 souls to an adjacent county?
Until then, Caldwell portrays those souls in their dailiness: splitting wood, washing clothes in the creek, telling storiesoften to themselvescatching and frying trout. We learn old homeopathic remedies like pennyroyal douche and spicebush febrifuge, how to make a torch out of hemlock and what a whistlepig is. We hear shapely nouns like doghobble and reaphook, place-names like Scratch Ankle and Ola and Sandsuck, words like “cotched” (read “caught”) and plenty of hillbilly similes. (“Your eyes look as red as a fox’s ass in a pokeberry patch.” The narrator chimes in with “croupy as a barn cat hocking a hair ball.”) And Caldwell, like many other Southern writers, gives a salivating catalogue of the groaning boards of food: from mountain trout and apples all the way to possum and chile-roasted bear meat.
For narrative thrust, Caldwell relies mostly on Cataloochee-bred Jim Hawkins, who marries a city girl and takes a warden job with the Park Commission, which relocates him with his young family to a rent-free house in the sticks. His strong-willed wife hates it there, but Hawkins refuses to move them back to Asheville, and the deepest conflict in Requiem by Fire is no public land dispute but a more intimate and slow-burning kind of war: marriage. Eventually, Hawkins has to choose between his family and his homeland, but he’s a weak-minded character; by novel’s end, he has backed into every decision he’s made, presiding lamely over the disintegration of the things he claims to hold dear. Caldwell gives him an antagonist of sorts, a Boo Radley-like figure named Willie McPeters (surmises about the innuendo embedded in his name turn out to be correct, and repellently so), but the miscreant’s presence is shadowy, auxiliary and undevelopedhe’s just there to give you, well, the williesand his outlandish grotesquerie makes him the least convincing character in a novel whose strength is its unforced authenticity. This is a homespun yarn, slowly and loosely knitted by design, not an epic tragedy.
In its deliberation, but not its style, Requiem by Fire resembles the work of another Asheville writer who looms over his regional descendants. That’s not only because Requiem is set in Thomas Wolfe’s literary backyard, but also because it indirectly addresses Wolfe’s great contradiction: If you do what he commanded and Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe heads off your gaze at the pass; look, yes, but You Can’t Go Home Again. Caldwell lets your eyes linger on Wolfe’s “distant soaring ranges,” but his lament for them is simple, wry and earthbound in a way that Wolfe, who died in 1938, might not have foreseen: You can’t go home again because home isn’t there anymore.