The Friends of Freeland
by Brad Leithauser
Knopf,, 508 pp., $26.00
by Barbara Gowdy
Steerforth Press, 268 pp., $24.00
In The Friends of Freeland Brad Leithauser suggests something of how the modern world might look from a perspective as disorienting and yet revealing as a polar-projection map is to Mercatorized minds. He proposes an island country where no islands are, between Iceland and Greenland, from which the rest of the globe is “Down Below.” Freeland was founded in 980 AD by someone whose Old Norse name could be translated as “Erik the Squalid” or even “Erik the Shitty,” but who is known to history, if at all, as “Erik the Other,” to distinguish him from a better-known Icelandic counterpart. The history and modern condition of the country, which became independent of Denmark after World War II, lack splendor. Its national epic, The Freeland Saga, was written by a foreigner and has scant literary merit; though the manuscript has never been to Freeland, its “return” from Iceland is a passionate local cause.
The place is mostly lava and ice, and one of its newspapers is ominously called The Daily Storm—here, as John McPhee writes of Iceland, “it is not easy to differentiate between bad weather and a natural disaster.” With the petering out of oil exploration, the main occupations are fishing, subsistence farming, and sheep raising, none of them doing well just now. Drunkenness is endemic, the illegitimacy rate is astronomical, and the other main pastime is “hole-digging,” starting ambitious public works that never get completed. When the narrator of the book recalls himself, in youth, sneaking onto the NATO base to see Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat, one understands why the chapter is entitled “The Birth of Culture.”
Clearly Freeland has entertaining possibilities, and Brad Leithauser accepts them gladly. But this is more than a sendup of the Nordic soul or a satire of “us” in the guise of “them.” Whatever their disadvantages, Freelanders cherish freedom, as their president reminds them on July 4, 1993: “We Freelanders are self-standing folk.” Though he’s half drunk at the moment, with vomit in his hair, his locution has its odd dignity, particularly if one knows that SjálfstÌ?tt Fólk is the original title of Independent People, the novel by Iceland’s Nobel Prize-winner Halldor Laxness which Leithauser has praised (in these pages) as a modern masterpiece.
Freeland is clearly a smaller version of Iceland, where Leithauser has spent a good deal of time, and this book is among other things a kind of tribute to Laxness and the tradition of epic literature that informed his novels. Like the Icelandic Sagas, The Friends of Freeland is an account of a (modern) hero, of sorts, the aforementioned president himself. Hannibal Hannibalsson, the chum with whom the narrator watched Fred and Ginger in 1958, has by 1993 been in office for twenty years. His administration hasn’t accomplished much, and the voters have wearied of him, even though his honesty and eloquence have held the ailing body politic together and his love of his land and people is unquestioned.
The narrator, Eggert …