Fathers & Fathers & Sons

Look How the Fish Live

by J.F. Powers
Knopf, 190 pp., $6.95

Beyond the Bedroom Wall

by Larry Woiwode
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 619 pp., $12.50

Is it possible to read The Sun Also Rises too often? Sad and charming and funny, young in just the right way, unbesmirched by, what makes so much other Hemingway foolish or wrong, it retains its magic the tenth time through. Yet Tim O’Brien has read it too often, let it sink into him too deeply. Though set in a town in the Arrowhead country of Minnesota, Northern Lights gives us Bill Gorton, in Robert Cohn’s position, talking to Jake Barnes:

“Much better now,” Harvey said. He sat on the bed. “Stellar human being. Why can’t everyone be so stellar?”

“I don’t know,” Perry said. “You all right now?”

“Good God, yes. Do you have my shoes?”

“Under the bed. Good night.”

“Dawn. Night. Addie fell for the stellar chap.”

“I know it. You’ll be better.”

“She falls and falls. She falls for everyone. Why can’t I be stellar?”

“You’re a one-eyed stellar fellow.”

Addie is Lady Brett, the ski races at Grand Marais are the bull fights in Pamplona, stellar Daniel is Pedro Romero, Perry’s wife is Hadley Hemingway. “Later they ate cold meat and apples and had another beer. It was all right. Harvey seemed happy, tall and very lean and strong, and the air was good.” That’s earlier, like Jake and Bill going fishing.

Which is a shame, because O’Brien seems to have firsthand interests and sense of places, and, in one long stretch, shows himself to be a real writer, not a ventriloquist. Interestingly, he stops writing like Hemingway where others often start, when Harvey and Perry leave the ski races and, at Harvey’s insistence, set out to ski home through the woods. They are brothers, the sons of a mad north woods minister, and Harvey probably invents the trip to force Perry into a vulnerability he would never reveal to their father, and Perry accepts it as a challenge. But Harvey loses their way, then gets sick, and they run out of food during a blizzard. The terms of potential combat dissipate into fleeting attempts to know what it means to be brothers facing annihilation. Freed from having to write much dialogue, O’Brien is free of Hemingway for more than a hundred pages, and the result is splendid clarity that is never nature writing, never heroics, never conscious understatement. Harvey is lousy with map and compass; he has brought too little food, but plenty of matches. O’Brien keeps his head through all this, shows that under stress discoveries will be made, but that getting along, and finding out what to do next, are as important to tenuous loving relationships as to survival.

O’Brien even assays that hardest of tasks, a prolonged telling of what happens after the high drama. To be sure, he fumbles about, inventing too many ways to show that the more adventurous Harvey cannot learn as much from adventure as can the introspective and withdrawing Perry. But it is good that he…

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