Novel November

Brighten the Corner Where You Are

by Fred Chappell

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Brighten the Corner Where You Are by Fred Chappell

Such a beautiful, lyric, and fun novel. Here we have one long and eventful day—from pre-dawn to sunset—in the life of school teacher, farmer, self-proclaimed philosopher, dreamer, and prankster, Joe Robert Kirkman. When we first see Joe Robert, he is on a wilderness outing with friends where he first trees and then is treed by a wild animal he may have birthed into being with his imagination. He suffers deep purple bruises to his face when he falls out of the tree. Later that morning on his drive to work, he saves a little girl from drowning, which ruins his good suit. And at school, when he should be teaching class, he attempts to talk a goat off the roof of the schoolhouse, which furthers covers him in soot and ash. It's a running gag that he is constantly being dirtied and bruised, becoming ever more unpresentable on the day he must look his absolute best. The end of the day holds a meeting with the school board who will determine if Joe Robert will keep his job. Joe Robert, you see, is accused of teaching and advocating the Theory of Evolution, a tenet which does not sit well with some in his mountain community.

It would be easy to paint Joe Robert as a rogue teacher, bucking the rigid system to bring light to students kept sightless by a repressive system. But this is not the case. Joe Robert, despite continually doing heroic and commendable things, isn't a hero, nor does he see himself as all that successful. When he saves the girl from drowning, he brushes the act off as simply doing what he was put there to do. At one point he actually does start to consider himself a a modern Prometheus, bringing fire to the people against the wishes of the gods, but then he thinks twice and realizes he's just a lowly teacher with students who humor him at best. He tries to engage them with clever presentations and classroom dialogs, but when he enlists his shyest student in a Socratic discourse, Joe Robert ends up losing his temper and threatening to punch the boy in the nose. After school he meets one of his prize pupils and learns she's not college-bound as he had thought. Rather, she's chosen the life of a housewife like all the other girls who pass through his classroom.

Joe Robert is a dreamer. And his dreams keep coming up empty. He succeeds despite his own exaggerations and cloud-minded stumblings, but because he can't make the world match the colorful imaginings in his head, he always feels like a failure.

The book begins with a short story that has nothing to do with the plot, a story that most literary-minded folk refer to as magic realism. Joe Robert pulls the moon from the night sky and drops it into a metal milk container, the kind Houdini was always escaping from. The night sky ever after is dark, though the stars shine more numerous than ever before. Eventually, he lifts the moon from the milk container, only to find it has become a chunk of glowing, runny cheese. What does this section mean? Are we to take it as factual as the rest of the book, which is fairly down to earth though full of florid and poetic description and tinged with the occasional exaggeration of facts? Hard to tell. Maybe it's meant to represent Joe Robert's belief that the world ought to have more magic in it, that the moon ought to be within everyone's reach. Maybe it's there to set the tone for the rest of the novel: light and airy, mysterious and playful. But not every chapter fits those descriptions. In one chapter, Joe Robert meets with the parents of a former student and learns the student has died. So why “Moon”? I can't rightfully say. But it's beautiful and mysterious, light yet full of gravitas.

I've had the pleasure of hearing Fred Chappell read twice. The first time was right after the publication of this novel, and he read a chapter from it. He read the chapter wherein Joe Robert teaches General Science. He tells his class about the youngest student ever to attend Harvard. He was just six months old. He was also a bear. The man who owned him was a geologist who believed that dinosaurs had been wiped from the earth by the flood that floated Noah and his family in their ark for forty days and nights. But then he finds the fossil of a prehistoric fish, an animal that would have easily survived the flood. So why is it no longer around? According to Joe Robert, the geologist did the bravest thing a scientist could do: he doubted his own beliefs. The whole class then pairs up boy to girl and dances arm in arm out of the room. You know, like teens do. Hearing Chappell read his own words was fantastic. He's a poet as well as a novelist, and the lyrical flow of his words paired with colloquial phrases and figures of speech does make for a Quixotic listening/reading experience. I've been a fan ever since.

This book is fun all the way through, even the sadder parts, of which there are only a few. But it always feels like it's holding back secrets, that there are depths unknown just below the surface. So even as you laugh, you can't help but feel that you've missed something, that a revelation has just barely eluded you. So maybe you sit and ponder on what you've read, and the story takes root in your mind and lives in your heart. That's the mark of a well-crafted book. Light and airy, heavy and dense. A waking dream that might not be real, a sleeping life that might be more than you see.

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing