A story in which nothing is as it seems
Early in this novel, an old retired teacher with Alzheimer’s, mistaking a visitor for his son, gives the young man a copy of a novel by Charles Brockton Brown and suggests that he read it. The novel is Wieland (1798,) a peculiar concoction of bizarre events that is considered the first “American gothic novel.” (I remember that it contains an account of human spontaneous combustion, murders, violent storms and inexplicable voices, insanity and mistaken identities).
It well may be that Charles Doff White means to suggest that Wieland is a template for his own work.Then again, perhaps not. Consider the following details from A Shelter of Others.
White seems to have a penchant for the dark, bleak and hopeless, a quality that puts him in good company. Like the late William Gay (Provinces of the Night) and the late lamented Harry Crews (The Gospel Singer), White has a perverse talent for dark humor. In addition, he shares a kind of apocalyptic message (much like Cormac McCarthy) that warns his readers that the world is winding down. In general, White’s characters often appear misguided, deluded or maddeningly self-possessed. Consider the following:
Mason Laws is out of prison after serving two years for peddling drugs to his neighbors. Since his wife, Lavada, has not visited him during his prison term, Mason assumes that she has no intention of living with him now that he has been released. However, Lavada continues to live in the house that she had shared with Mason. In addition, she continues to take care of Mason’s ailing father, Sam, a retired university professor who has Alzheimer’s and is totally dependent on Lavada who cares deeply for the old man but dreams of escaping from her life in a mountain cove. Economically strapped, Lavada finds a job as a waitress and develops a friendship with owner of the cafe, a genial fellow named Dennis.
However, nothing is what it seems, including Sam, who sits on the porch in the evening and plays his fiddle. Throughout A Shelter of Others, Sam speaks directly to the reader in italicized monologues. Sam is vigilant, watching for the lurking evil that could wreck his secure life with his daughter-in-law. When Dennis shows up, an aspiring lover for Lavada, the old man begins to talk to him as though he were his missing son, Mason. Dennis “adjusts” to his new role and talks to Sam as though Sam were his father.
Meanwhile, Mason wanders through his hometown, reluctant to return home. Although uncertain as to how to proceed, he is possessed with vague plans to “turn over a new leaf.” He wants to find a job and support himself, yet his efforts seem futile. For a while he lives in an abandoned lumber camp and even attempts to build a crude shelter for himself. In time, he finds a job in a fruit stand, and the owner offers him food and shelter in return for operating the fruit stand and renovating some deteriorating apartments. As his life improves, he ventures closer to his former home. When he discovers a wheelchair-bound derelict named Irving hiding in one of the apartments, Mason offers to help the man. However, Cody, a local cop who harbors a bitter enmity for derelicts (especially Irving), finds the hapless man and forces him to leave. Irving ends up alone on a road in another county. However, Mason tracks Irving down, takes him home to Lavada and attempts a reconciliation.
In a world where nothing is what is seems, the stage is set for disaster. The complicated knot of misunderstandings and delusions reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s solution to a similar state of affairs in The Return of the Native. Concluding that there was no resolution to the tangled lives of his characters, Hardy creates a flash flood and drowns half of his cast. In A Shelter of Others, Charles Dodd White creates a violent storm that rages through the mountain community that is adjacent to a national forest. Lives are lost in the subsequent flood, but the storm also spawns a host of strange incidents, including voices of uncertain origin, murders, fatal accidents and a great deal of misunderstanding.
As the wind rises and the storm clouds gather, Sam awakens from his dementia (or is it a brief spell of sanity?) to discover that the lurking evil that he has long anticipated has arrived. It is Irving, the broken man in the wheelchair. Sam stabs Irving to death and flees into the storm. In a very short time, everyone is searching for this frail old man. Mason, Lavada, Dennis and Cody search through a surreal world of abandoned watch towers, nature trails and flooded streams where each will find a final resolution of sorts.
Misguided and bewildered, White’s characters hear discordant voices in the forest around them. Some originate from a would-be rescue party; some are lost campers trying to find their way back to civilization, and some are “of unknown origin.” Certainly, the voices heard by the dying Mason and his senile father have little to do with earthly justice or rescue. The storm seems to be a symbol of the growing tension and anger of the frustrated characters, and it culminates in a mental storm that leaves a lot of wreckage in its wake.
Although the survivors manage to put their lives back together, there is a distinct irony in their conclusions about what has happened .... conclusions which are all based on misconceptions and delusions. Mason is thought to be the murderer of Irving and Lavada seeks out the father of Cody, the man who despised Mason and the “trailer trash” that made his job as a policeman especially difficult. Sam ends up in a retirement home in Asheville where he sits in a blissful stupor staring at the natural world. Cody ends up dead in a flooded creek. White seems to be saying, “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.”
When I read White’s short story collection, The Sinners of Sanction County, I noted that the setting bore a distinct similarity to my own Jackson County. There is the university a short distance away and a collection of landmarks, such as Harris Hospital and Mark Watson Field — all of which serve as background to White’s short stories. A Shelter of Others has the same setting. These factors, in conjunction with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, suggest that if the physical setting is the same, is it possible that White’s character may be based on actual personages? Gee Whiz! Do you think that could be true?
A Shelter of Others by Charles Dodd White. Penisula, 2013. 216 pages.