In my novel The Book of Hard Things, a man named Jason Trimble reflects on why, though he’d never before had trouble putting pen to paper, he found it almost impossible to be a journalist. Just out of college and working as a reporter for a small weekly paper, Trimble (who eventually becomes a Methodist minister) is paralyzed by a question that nags at him in the midst of the high school basketball games he’s covering and at meetings of the school board: “How to do justice to another man’s life?” His concern, given the context, seems overblown—even he thinks so, and he is chagrined by his own moral solicitude. Still, it is not a rhetorical question. How does a writer do justice to another person’s life? It is a question that has dogged me in a career that, up to now, has been as an essayist and journalist writing often about lives that, to many, seem marginal. And it is at the heart of why, when I began to think about writing a book about a place rich in natural beauty but poor in more conventional ways, a place like the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, where I have lived for more than a dozen years, fiction was a more compelling medium than fact.
But let me back up. Some years ago I took leave from a doctoral program at Oxford in political theory to take a blessedly unabstract job in Lower Manhattan, working among young men who had been biding their time in Attica and Sing Sing and Coxsackie prisons while I was bent over books in the Bodleian Library. We were curiosities to each other, though I was more publicly curious about them than they were about me, having already developed the ability to ask direct, unseemly questions—a journalist’s questions. But we were working in close quarters, and I wanted to know: where had these guys come from and what had they done?
In those days I carried a notebook, and sometimes after these conversations I’d write things down. On one page I made a drawing of a coworker’s leg showing where each bullet had gone in during an armed robbery that left two others dead. On another were these words from a native New Yorker named Valentine: “If you are so smart, then why don’t you know that you and I live in different countries?”
I returned to school, finished my degree, and moved back to New York, where I continued to work with ex-offenders and welfare mothers and the drug-addicted, and where I began to write. The urban poverty I had known through the work, say, of Jacob Riis was no longer an abstraction to me (who worked in the shadow of the Jacob Riis housing project on the Lower East Side). And when I wrote about what I was seeing and who I was meeting, whatever power issued from my words came from the very fact that what they described was real and irrefutable. No one could say “but it couldn’t have happened that way,” or “people don’t live like that,” because, of course, it already had happened and they most certainly were living that way. And so I was satisfied that nonfiction—a strict accounting of the facts—was the best way to write about the disenfranchised. If nothing else, by using the words of the people I encountered in homeless shelters and soup kitchens and AIDS hospices and prisons, I was giving them voice. Here was a way to do justice to someone else’s life.
After nearly a decade in New York City my husband and I moved to the other end of the state, to an isolated, rural community in the Adirondacks. The six-million-acre Adirondack Park, which covers more area than Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks combined, is an unusual patchwork of public and private land—unusual because it is one of the few forest preserves in the world that boasts and even promotes human settlement: people live among the birch, the pine, the pine martens. Yet how those people—my neighbors—were living did not concern me, not at first. My interests still lay in cities. I was writing a book about solitude and privacy, which we had in spades where I lived, yet all but one of the stories I told in Migrations to Solitude were about some other place, some place more peopled.
Still, I couldn’t help but notice the constant reports of DWI arrests in the local newspaper; the number of children qualifying for free breakfast and free lunch at school; the constant rumors about domestic violence in one family and reports of child abuse in another; the teenagers pushing baby carriages; the old woman who ran out of kerosene and froze to death in her trailer home; the police dogs that came to school to sniff out drugs. I started to keep a file marked “rural poverty” into which I’d toss stray bits of “data”—statistics about the high incidence of diabetes among the rural poor, for instance, or a newspaper clipping about a man two towns over who died in a fire trying to melt copper wire in order to sell the copper to buy fuel to heat his home. It was interesting stuff, all of it, but when I thought of it in jounalistic terms it seemed remarkably predictable and old. I mean, didn’t we know this already? Wasn’t the end of the story apparent from the beginning?
And then, out of nowhere, over the space of a few months, three young men in our small town killed themselves. Each had graduated from the local high school within the past couple of years and none had gone on to college—no surprise there—or found full-time work. This, too, was not out of the ordinary. Unemployment, seasonal employment, dangerous employment—logging—are the main features of our local economy. Jobs are hard to come by. Nonetheless, no one could fathom why these boys had done what they had done. Could it be that in the face of nothing to do, shooting yourself or hanging yourself or slitting your wrists was, when it came down to it, something to do?
One of those young men lived on my road, and after he died his parents strung his name in Christmas lights across the side of their house. “Larry,” it said. I passed it, coming and going, every time I got into my car. Day and night: “Larry.”
Who was Larry, I’d wonder as I went past. What had happened—or had not happened—in his 19 years? Who were his friends, his family? Who was his girlfriend? Did he have a girlfriend? And because I did not know the answers to any of these questions, I’d make them up. I imagined Larry’s life, over and over again, telling myself different plausible stories. It was almost like a game of telephone, or of dominoes: I’d change some of the details and then watch those changes generate other changes, making a whole other story. This went on for some time—more than a year. One of the lights on “Larry” went out, then another, and they weren’t replaced. As Larry began to fade, I started to write down what I had been imagining as I drove past his parents’ house. But by then it wasn’t Larry’s particular story I found myself telling. Rather, it was what I understood to be the context of a life like Larry’s, the life of a kid who has had none of the breaks that I, and perhaps you, have had, and whose ability to see into the future is limited—a kid who lives in a physically gorgeous but cash-poor place, where people who are well-off come to visit, spend money, and leave. What happens to “Larry” when he experiences this disparity, when he perceives that the things he knows about have little currency in the world of people who have the freedom to come and go? What happens to him when he comes in contact with someone from that other world? What happens to that other person?
I wrote The Book of Hard Things to answer those questions. They were not rhetorical. Unfettered by the actual facts of the the actual story, I was free to try to depict a larger reality. This, of course, is one of the gifts that fiction bestows upon a writer. Here is the chance to bypass the extant world, to which many of us have become inured, and to restore empathy, our most human kind of understanding.
• • •
After the first two lights of “Larry” went out it took years before the others quit, but they did, and the name grew dim, then dimmer, then dark. Unlit, “Larry” hung against the side of the house like an impression, like a footprint left in the snow, the snow slowly receding. It was there for years. The years in which I wrote my book. Then they were gone, and the old wall was covered by new siding, the color of loam, and the story behind that wall could fit in the palm of my hand.
Excerpt from The Book of Hard Things
They were out of town in minutes, on the other side of the country road and heading up the mountain. A sign—maroon with gold lettering—said entering whispher notch, an exclusive preserve, and when they had passed it, they were in a different place. Stone walls ran low to the ground, corralling part of the forest as if it could be broken and tamed. There had been farms here long ago. Even now Cuzzy would walk through the woods and come upon old house foundations covered with weeds, or trip over tin cans that had rusted to filigree, a whole pile of them, or chimneys rising from hearths that themselves rose from bare dirt. Lost civilizations, he used to think, imaging the pioneers who had beaten back the forest by hand—had tamed it—taking down trees and pulling up stumps and rocks as though they were weeds. All this until they had made pasture, made it themselves where it had never been. Success was measured by attrition, by how many trees were gone, by how empty the land was.
Cuzzy’s own ancestors, his mother’s side, had done this, pushing back the forest as if it were the sea, pushing and pushing against the tidal force of gravity and new growth, clearing the land only to find the soil thin and alkaline and at best a begrudging home to the seeds they had carried with them across the ocean. They tilled the earth and the earth yielded boulders. It broke their plows. It gave them roots. The roots tripped them up. They couldn’t work hard enough. All around them the forest was constantly returning to its metabolic set point. Three generations later, and this was what was left to show that people had been here, had made their lives here: a mossy necklace of flat stones, intentionally laid, the occasional slag of rotted cans, and a road that once went somewhere.