Tuesday, December 17, 2013

APOCALYPTIC ECO-THRILLER: "North Sister" by Barry Greer

So are you yearning for Ed Abbey?  I’ve got another writer for you.  He might also please fans of Martin Murie’s eco-mysteries, but Martin was a kinder, gentler guy.  This is tough stuff.  Good clean prose, Machiavellian plotting, and a bunch of dangerous women who speak Spanish.  Apocalyptic enviro stuff.  When reviewing previous work by Greer that he insists is satirical, I’ve complained that his satire is too realistic for me to see that he's mocking.  This is different.  It responds to the times, man, by going over the top.  

So why while I read do I keep hearing the theme from “Mash” ?  Wasn’t that Korea?  This is supposed to be post-Vietnam.  But the cutting edge now is Afghanistan and will soon be Syria, probably chemical warfare.  Maybe relating it to the chemical atrocities we are willingly doing to ourselves by contaminating our land and water with strange molecules meant to be medicine, pesticide or fertilizer. 

Tales like Greer’s “North Sister” depend on two factors:  the emotional force pushing the author -- he writes from his molten core -- and the competence of the detail and plot.  Both are here.  Many of the ecological or at least nature-based mysteries, like the series written by Nevada Barr, are sort of cool -- poised.  They know the territory, they solve the mystery, they overcome danger, but they don’t go ballistic.  J.J. Abrams had better get an option on this story.  Green screen would make it possible -- forget doing much more than panoramas on a Cascade mountain where the weather moves fast.  

Greer claims there is subtext and, of course, there is.  He notes that others may see more than he does, and, of course, we do.  It’s dark at the heart of a mountain.  Vulcan was a cripple with an unfaithful wife.

Here’s the plot:  “The religious nuts will kill the military nuts, and the military nuts will kill the religious nuts."  The tale is told skillfully, with tough, no-fat prose and convincing detail about equipment and climbing.  This is a worthy message and he nails it.  The exasperating question is why junk gets published by the mainstream, and why there is no reliable way for someone “unknown” to get their deserving work out.  Murie's novels weren't picked up by a publisher either.  What strategy -- since calling in National Guard and holding a gun everyone is not practical -- can an author pursue?  I mean, aside from attacking listservs.

Greer came to my attention -- and that of a lot of others -- when he suddenly started throwing grenades into the quiet academic library of environmental writing that is the listserv called “Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment.”  ASLE, for short.  He was using the strategy of his novel -- confrontation -- on people who were not zealots, neither military or particularly religious, or even the spearhead of the current movements, which operate on the level of regulation, boundaries, and negotiation.  So many of the fierce tigers of yesterday have become pussycats.

I had a little sympathy.  As it turned out, he is in Corvallis where I have relatives and his story is somewhat like mine, in that he has folded a working class emergency response experience (firefighting) into a college education and writing.  We are both post-Christian, but he comes from a Baptist clergy family.  When he was recovering from cancer -- which was cured by nearly killing him with poison -- he relied on the mountain called the North Sister as a pin-up and “Mash” as an attitude.  

So ASLE threw him off the listserv.  By now they may have thrown me off as well.  Build the wall higher, make the firewall thicker, put your fingers in your ears.  When asked straight out what he wanted and why ASLE, Greer went silent. But he did send out pdf’s to selected people, me among them.  If I invest a lot of time and thought into reading someone else’s writing, I post reviews.  This is the third.  I doubt there will be more, though I enjoyed the books and will finish reading what I have.  It’s just that I have my own projects that never appear on this blog -- have no relevance.

The other reason I’m stopping the reviews is that I do not collaborate, I do not indulge, I do not do puffery.  I’m a tough grader.  And I’m not made curious by hints at secrets or scandals.  I hope Greer has success with his writing -- if that’s what he’s after -- but I’m not going to align myself with him or take directions from him.  It may be that ASLE throws me off the listserv as collateral damage but I saw that possibility in the beginning.  When people get embroiled in such internal squabbles, it confuses and weakens the larger movement.  If reviews are helpful, three are enough.

My own blog is a public voice, something like running a magazine or a writing a column.  I do it happily because it’s five-finger exercises, but my real life is something else.  Like Greer, I’ve been in many settings and borne similar disappointments, but my reaction is different.  I recognize the necessity and justice of his rage; I see it and don’t condemn it.  I don’t share it.

Archibald Macleish has Nickles say in “J.B.” :

"If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God;
Take the even, take the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water."  

The human dilemma is that we dearly love this planet but seem only to be able to protect it through polarization and violence.   “God” does no better, an issue we call “theodicy.”   If He's GOD, why doesn't he FIX it????  The solution for me is to see the continuousness of all existence, that we are all interacting dynamic coded processes who somehow have the ability to know that it’s happening and create stories about it.  Therefore, I take it that a worthy enterprise is to expand one’s consciousness and to shape truthful words about what we see.  I take this as the core “higher” purpose of ASLE quite apart from creating careers and empires or reflecting on relevant writing.  

Well done, words (and images) can be intense enough to change the culture, the only real way to save the world.  You may remember that J.B.'s wife cannot kill herself because there is a forsythia blooming at the end of the bridge she was going to leap off.

Screaming about injustices is not enough.  There are too many of them and they are often in opposition to each other.  Liberal enclaves where people congratulate themselves on their irreproachable and terribly aesthetic opinions are no better.  Eco-mysteries are all the rage now and Greer was there early -- 24 years ahead of the pack.  But as the apostles said to Jesus after the reincarnation,  “What have you done for us LATELY?”  (Preacher’s joke.)  

"North Sister" is a young man's book.  What would you write about sowing dragon teeth now, Barry?

“There is no dusk to be, 
There is no dawn that was, 
Only there's now, and now, 
And the wind in the grass.” 

 -- Archibald MacLeish

“North Sister” is a first novel published in three 1990-1991 issues of The Climbing Art, printed by FreeSolo Press, owned by David Mazel, now chair of the Adams State College English Department in Alamosa, Colorado.  Greer served as contributing editor for a time. Now "North Sister" is on Amazon along with Greer's other work.

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