J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, $22 (cloth)

Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes
J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, $14 (cloth)

Americans who find castles in their backyards are a benighted bunch. It is territory many authors have visited, on a metaphorical level (Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs), on a literal level (Gene Wolfe’s Castleview), or somewhere in the glittering twilight of in-between (John Crowley’s Little, Big, with its evocation of Faerie). The first two-thirds of J. Robert Lennon’s Castle (2009) read adroitly, even compellingly, along familiar magical-realist lines, even as they concern a narrator who disdains the possibility of anything like magic.

Eric Loesch is a touchy 50-something retiree in search of . . . something; he is not even sure himself, only that he feels compelled to return to his hometown, the upstate New York hamlet of Gerrysburg. Gerrysburg has fallen on hard times since Loesch left years ago, following the untimely deaths of his parents. It is not a pleasant place, but it feels right. Loesch quickly puts his retirement money down on a dilapidated farmhouse and adjacent tract of land a few miles into the country. He sets about renovating the farmhouse and exploring the woods—his woods, he immediately begins to think of them. Almost from the start, things go bump in the night, and sometimes during the day, too.

For one thing, people in Gerrysburg seem to know more about Loesch than Loesch offers the reader: indeed, more than Loesch seems to know about himself. We are made to understand that Loesch is a soldier—a career soldier, and now an ex-soldier, for reasons that are darkly hinted at, reasons that may involve a hot, dry, sandy landscape in which people die. And the woods: they are mysterious, nearly impenetrable, seemingly bereft of all animal life (with one exception). They foil Loesch’s considerable orienteering prowess. They contain at least one geophysical anomaly, a jutting spire of eye-catching granite. In the shadow of that spire lies a small patch of ground that Loesch discovers, belatedly, he does not own. Loesch’s quest to determine who does, and why, drives the novel.

It is a crackerjack setup. Lennon skillfully pulls the reader further and further into Loesch’s formidable demesne, writing much more tightly than he has in any previous outing. Loesch follows in a long line of unlikable Lennon protagonists, but he must be the most likable of this unlikable lot: he has moments of introspective insight, self-scrutiny, even of compassion. The chapters are short; each ends with a narrative hook, in the style of old radio serials. The mysteries mount, merge, are explained, and give way to further mysteries, even as Lennon (through Loesch) takes great pains to emphasize just how logical, how rational all explanations ultimately must be.

For this is not, in the end, a work of magical realism, in spite of the baroque, even gothic trappings. There is a reason for Loesch’s sudden plunge back into the pastoral, for his return to Gerrysburg, for his attraction to this particular piece of real estate. When a mysterious stranger shows up on Loesch’s doorstep, she turns out to be his long-estranged sister; when an even more mysterious stranger breaks into his house in the middle of the night and leaves a bizarre gift (or taunt) on Loesch’s dining room table, this, too, can be explained. Even the eponymous castle that lies at the heart of the book’s many mysteries has a rational explanation—not that this comforts anyone in the end, not its master, not Loesch, and certainly not the reader.

The most mysterious apparition in Castle is the white deer pictured on the novel’s cover: not an albino deer, Loesch is careful to note, but a white deer that appears to him on one of his first forays into the woods. A white doe suddenly materializing fifteen feet from one’s person is astonishing on its own terms, but for Loesch, the encounter runs deeper:

Somehow, I recognized this particular deer—the one that was now placidly staring at me through the crowded alley of tree trunks. I couldn’t have said what it was about the animal that was familiar—what set it apart from other, similar animals I had seen in my life—nor could I even have identified what parts of any deer tended to differ from individual to individual. I merely understood, instinctively, that this was my deer, and that the animal wanted me to see it.

“I want to make it clear that I am not the kind of person who subscribes to half-baked, magical ideas,” Loesch hastens to add.

Nevertheless, I have been trained to do what I am told, and to report the facts as I find them, and the fact is that, as I sat on a rotting tree trunk in the middle of my leafless wood, something did indeed pass between me and a solitary white deer, and I felt—I am afraid to say—a profound rightness in the encounter, along the edge of which played a very faint hint of fear.

If this all sounds familiar—when have we last seen a ghostly doe threading its way through a dark wood, meant to be seen by our protagonist, meant for our protagonist?—a nearly identical scene occurs in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry’s doe turns out to be the “patronus” (guardian spirit) of the man Harry mistakenly thinks is his arch-enemy, sent to instruct him in his hour of need. Loesch goes to great lengths to explain both his deer and how it came to be in these particular woods. To reveal more about Loesch’s immediate past—the reasons behind his exile in Gerrysburg—would spoil the plot. Suffice it to say there is no saving magic in Castle, no magic at all. Harry Potter has grown up, but something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. The white deer remains a white deer, explicable, vulnerable, and ultimately mortal.

I found myself so gripped by the first three-quarters of Castle (magic or no magic) that the denouement, even though I had come to expect it, arrived as a disappointment. I wish Lennon had left more to the reader’s imagination. If we are tired of the “Then I woke up and it was all a dream!” ploy, then we are also, and equally, exhausted by its late twentieth-century cousin: repressed memory syndrome as a plot device. But perhaps this speaks to Lennon’s larger point. The imagination can only take us so far—away from that hot, dry, sandy place where people die, away from our own worst self-realizations. We do things to one another, and what we meant really is not all that important, in the end. Loesch meant well, as a loyal soldier and as a man. But sheer intention, as might-have-been, is as fantastic—as imaginary—as anything Gabriel García Márquez or J.K. Rowling has cooked up.

In Jonathan Carroll’s novels, magic—what we call magic—exists, but it saves no one. In Lennon’s Castle, it is not magic that is cruel, but rather the promise of magic, because it is illusory. Once we were children. We are not children anymore.

• • •

If Castle presents an all-too-plausible narrative beneath the baroque trappings of magical realism, Lennon’s 2005 collection of short-shorts, Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes, skirts the question of genre entirely. Introducing himself and the volume in the third person, Lennon explains how the pieces came into being during his long walks in small-town upstate New York:

He began to remember events he had witnessed, stories he had heard, thoughts he had had that he couldn’t let go. Things that happened to his neighbors, to his wife’s colleagues. Things he read in the paper. Every day, for many months, he sifted through the growing pile of memories, until he had begun to tell them to himself, as stories. I once knew a man, the stories began. A woman I know. In our town. The stories accumulated, forming a script in his mind, a repertoire. Some of them are true. Some have been embellished, or fabricated entirely. If he had to, the author could get up on stage and recite them all, but this isn’t the kind of thing it would occur to him to do, or that he would enjoy. What he enjoys is being alone, telling himself stories.

Hooked? I thought not. This is a pity, because Pieces for the Left Hand, though a slower read than Castle, is subtly, and in the best tradition of the prose short-short (hearkening back to Whitman’s Specimen Days), the more haunting work.

Like his 2003 novel, Mailman, Pieces for the Left Hand is set more or less obviously in Ithaca, New York, where Lennon lives and teaches. (Connoisseurs of Ithaca will recognize the gorge, the coffeeshops, Cornell, etc., though proper nouns are never employed.) Lennon’s tone in this book is careful, meditative, lapidary—almost dry, but never quite. Pieces for the Left Hand shares its greatest affinity with the tradition of American literature that emphasizes social life as a tangible, even incarnate, system. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town lurks just off-page (Lennon repeatedly uses the phrase “our town” in his opening movements). As in Our Town, what initially seems pinchbeck, even pastiche, eventually trembles at the edge of something like truth. Or consider Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology as sequences of opposing portraits lining a long hallway. In terms of more contemporary American literature, Lennon’s flat, barely wistful tone—sometimes with a hint of cruelty in it, and wonder that there is such a thing (cruelty) in this world—is reminiscent of Michael Martone.

The subject of Pieces for the Left Hand is the tension between intimacy and distance in a close-knit social system: more specifically, the ways in which our personal and public narratives conflict. Je est un autre. Thus, we get an argument over who should be honored with the name of the town’s main street, which leaves the street nameless; a centuries-old accommodation between a Native American tribe and local landowners disrupted by bloviation from an ambitious politician; a suicide—complete with desperate, fragmentary note—that isn’t. Twins turn out not to be twins—not even siblings. The narrator’s cat is actually someone else’s, a mistake apparently made five years before, on the eve of his move from another city. Over and over, we face the unreliability of memory when it is brought into public exchange: eye witnesses to a drive-by shooting cannot agree on any of the details of the event; a childhood memory of a father’s accident is disproven, point by point, but proves just as stubbornly vivid as it had been before (and therefore even more disturbing). Things either are not what they seem, or else they are what they seem, only the inner life of that congruence is no longer what we thought it was.

By the time the reader approaches the middle of the collection, these short pieces—none are more than three pages; most are two—begin to take on the aura of parable, or koan. A witness to a murder almost fails to report it because it happened so far from him—at the edge of his vision—that he is not sure it happened at all. On her deathbed, the speaker’s mother recalls the enduring stench of a rancid porkchop her long-deceased husband tried to remove from a defrosted freezer in an apartment complex he managed. A local chef quits his old job at a state prison after the elaborate last meal he prepares for a death row prisoner is returned to his kitchen untouched. These vignettes seem to cry out for some deeper meaning, even as they insist upon easy interpretation.

There are a few misfires, of course: tall tales that strain the quiet fabric of Lennon’s idiom, narratives that read like incursions from the zanier precincts of the American prose poem. If you’ve read one short-short about pigs being dressed in army uniforms for secret government experiments, you’ve probably read them all. What lingers, however, is an overall sense that some sort of existential mystery of communal life in America has been, if not explained, at least approached, circumambulated. There are moments of painful self-realization, and also moments of great beauty. In “Leaves,” Lennon imagines the communal relationship between townspeople and the leaves tourists don’t come to see, three seasons out of four. Here is spring, in a town known for its fall foliage:

[The leaves] start out tiny and green, like mint candies, and for a short time they are ours alone, and nobody else’s. And then in summer, even when wind and rain and hail tear through them, even then they stay right on the trees and make a sound like applause, all summer long. As if they are thanking us for spending this time with them before the tourists come and take them away.

In “The Denim Touch,” the narrator describes how a quirky bedtime serial he tells his daughter evolved into existential trauma. Long after the daughter is grown and gone, the narrator finds himself making up new installments, hoping to get it right, to come up with a better ending. “I wouldn’t dare tell them to my children, who are grown, or to the children they might someday bear,” he confides.

Perhaps they are a form of prayer: there is considerable comfort in this endless tale of impending resurrection, and since I claim no formal religious affiliation, the stories may fill a need I am not fully aware I possess.

Ultimately, Pieces for the Left Hand is a book about residence: about staying, and choosing to stay, even when our motives and stories become tangled, unreliable, opaque. In “Twilight” the narrator (Lennon?) recalls a time when, working in a local coffeehouse, he mistakenly thought a pod of French tourists asked for the “twilight,” when they actually wanted the “toilet.” Lennon moves deftly between remembering how his teenaged self described the area’s magnificent sunsets and the embarrassment he felt when a more proficient speaker of English interceded to explain the mistake. That is the story, but it is not quite all of the story: “Later that evening, when my shift was over, I walked home along the lake and saw them out on the pier, watching the sun set. I stood watching them watch until it was dark.” The question, Lennon suggests, is not one of belonging so much as who belongs where, on what terms.

One definition of empathy—of citizenship—might be to stand still, watching others watch. If so, these brief pieces are a kind of memorial to a need we are not fully aware we possess, that need for narrative as communal: for a device that creates the social, even as it complicates or interrogates it. It is not a mistake that Lennon’s final pensée—about an anonymous writer in an anonymous upstate town whose epic local history is finally reduced to an unpublishable haiku—ends on the words “pity” and “awe.” It is the same pity and awe that Wilder felt at the end of Our Town, despite the cloying, stagy early bits that border on parody, and that Anderson conveyed alongside all of Winesburg’s greed, isolation, and despair. What keeps getting “resurrected” in Lennon’s tiny, precise stories is the “we” in “us.”