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Cover of THE PILGRIMI hereby publicly confess my sins.… I shall write in plain style and tell the truth as near as I am able.

Such is the promise of Charles Wentworth at the outset of The Pilgrim, Hugh Nissenson’s latest novel (Sourcebooks, 2011), and Charles keeps his word, laying out truths more severely than a fundamentalist preacher. Like Nissenson’s previous works (see, e.g., my comments on My Own Ground), this book makes “unflinching” an understatement. The stern eye on human life will never blink. The Pilgrim is a wise and moving book, a finely crafted book, and not for the faint of spirit.

The year is 1623, and the life of man and woman in Plymouth Colony—and in the England that the colonists have fled—matches the famous phrase Hobbes would use 28 years later in Leviathan: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Except that Hobbes was describing what he called the state of nature, an imaginary condition without culture or government. Nissenson often turns that philosophy on its head, revealing how much blame lies with the institutions that supposedly protect us from our base instincts.

The demands of his Puritan faith torment Charles; he agonizes over his sins and doubts his salvation. At one point, when he complains to a friend that his soul is “quiescent,” the friend offers the kind of capsule life story that the novel uses several times to devastating effect:

Hook replied, “Better than poor Annie Watts in Worksop. She tormented herself day and night as to whether she be damned or saved. She could not bear not knowing, so she threw her four-month-old babe, Clyde, down a well, wherein he drowned. Said Annie, ‘’Tis better to know that I am damned than not to know what God plans for my soul throughout eternity.’ They hanged her.”

Charles will not fault religion for burdening Annie’s mind or the state for executing a mentally disturbed person, nor will the author breach the form to wink at us. Rather, as the ultimate modernist, Nissenson gives us a narrator who is both reliable in his facts and constricted in his interpretation.

Wherever he roams over space and time, Nissenson immerses himself, and his readers, in the moment. In this novel he wants us to see, hear and smell the 17th-century life of these struggling souls, no matter how gruesome it may be. And there is plenty of gruesome throughout the novel. I’ll forebear quoting from the explicit scenes of hangings, but as forewarning, and as a sample of the masterful way the author assembles simple details, here are a couple of passages:

[A bear baiting in the sin capital of London:]
A bear with little pink eyes pursued one of the mastiffs, while the other five dogs pursued the bear. One dog clung with his jaws to the bear’s left front leg, and the bear bit him through his neck bone and got free. Another dog clung to the bear’s belly, just above his private parts. The bear sat up and, with a front paw, struck the dog’s left shoulder. He would not relinquish his hold. The bear ripped open the dog’s breast with his front claws. I glimpsed the dog’s beating heart. The drunken spectators cheered.

[An infected finger:]
The doctor came again and said, “See the thinness of skin about the wound? The abscess is ripe for opening.” He sliced it with his lancet, to a great profusion of blood and pus. The inflammation became livid. Little bladders oozing green and yellow ichors spread all over the skin. The tumor subsided, and for an hour or so, I hoped for the best. Then her whole forefinger turned black.

The “plain style” that Nissenson so skillfully imitates was a deliberate attempt by the Puritans to rid their writing, especially their sermons, of the rhetorical flourishes of the Church of England and the aristocracy. Educated at Cambridge, Charles confesses to being “lewdly disposed to beauteous language,” and in reaction he takes on an almost antiliterary straightforwardness. Even so, the vivid details make his account a compelling read. Here, an ugly scene made me smile because it was so perfectly described:

I alighted from my wagon at the inn named The Sign of the Bear and Ragged Staff in Charing Cross, which is in the City of Westminster, a suburb without the walls of London. The inn was crowded with plump, muddy whores, boy prostitutes, and cutthroats armed with daggers. The press of rowdy maltbugs lugged ale, even as little pigs lug at their dam’s teats.

As that pig indicates, the plain style doesn’t preclude an occasional homely metaphor of the sort that the Puritan preachers loved. Here is Rigdale, a would-be preacher:

“Who is close to Christ all the time? Am I? Surely not. He comes and goes from me like the tide upon the beach I once saw at Dover. At full tide, I am soaked by Him, immersed in His mercy, but then He leaves me high and dry, covered with sandy sea weed. Right now, at this moment, I am high and dry, covered with sea weed, sand, and cockle shells. Yet I have faith that the living waters—His precious blood—will wash over me again.”

And, though less frequent than the horror, there are some genuinely lovely passages, especially when Charles’s faith works well enough for him to appreciate Creation:

On the day following, I went to weed in the cornfield. Just before noon, as I pulled a handful of weeds from the crumbling earth, my eye caught the yellowish tassel protruding atop a red ear of corn from its sheath of pointed leaves. I peeled the leaves back an inch or two. An ant was crawling on one of the red kernels. I gazed at my gloved right hand, holding the weeds with their roots covered with soil, and the shallow hole left in the earth around the stalk. Then I digged beneath the stalk’s roots. There I saw the backbone of a herring [used for fertilizer] that had rotted away.

Then my soul flowed joyfully into those elements of fecundity …

Anyone who has read this far may wonder whether the novel has a plot. It does, concerning Charles’s attempt to find peace with God and himself, and as an adjunct to that quest, a godly woman to support him and ease his lust. Along the way, the reader is treated to Indian wars, the disastrous attempt to establish a new colony, Charles’s family history in England and multiple side stories. The dozens of minor characters include historical ones like Miles Standish, William Brewster, Massasoit and Governor William Bradford. What stands out for me, though, are the stark images of 17th-century life, both outer and inner: the decent man straining to find peace in a human-mucked world with more abominations than beauty—and with ideologies more fanatical than rational.

We’d like to believe our world is vastly different now. Sure it is: we have antibiotics for infected fingers.

Models of Compression

June 3, 2012

Recent readings: three very different works that use compression to good advantage.

1. Larry Loebell’s short play Will and the Code, just performed by F. Murray Abraham in NYC as part of Resonance Ensemble’s 10th anniversary celebration.

The monologue presents one side of a telephone conversation: theatrical agent Phil O. Strait speaking to his client, Will, about changes Will needs to make in a script to accommodate the new theatrical code. It seems that Will’s play features fairies, enchantment, consciousness-altering substances, a character named Puck, and worst of all, explicit lust. Will gets livid about the recommended rewrites, but Phil, a true professional, handles him smoothly. Loebell, no stranger to politically inspired theater, has posted the entire hilarious piece online at http://loebell.com/will-and-the-code/.

2. Hugh Nissenson’s first novel, My Own Ground (1976), a 181-page tale of a 15-year-old orphaned immigrant, Jake, in the Lower East Side of 1912.

I first discovered Nissenson through The Tree of Life, his amazing 1985 novel of the Ohio frontier. Since then I’ve read Days of Awe, a tender 9/11 novel, and The Song of the Earth, a futuristic fable about a genetically engineered artist. Nissenson’s books roam through time and place. He’s deliberately, perhaps obsessively, innovative, so that he’ll take you into what seems like a generic tale and then bend all of the conventions. Two of his major works include his own strange illustrations, supposedly created by the protagonist. Yet, through all these experiments and variations, his preoccupation with morality and violence remains constant.

In My Own Ground, Jake gets involved with protecting beautiful young Hannele, a rabbi’s daughter, from the pimp who is after her; but Hannele’s self-destructiveness complicates matters. Other characters include a Russian revolutionary who tries to raise Jake’s political consciousness. Though there are plenty of vivid details about immigrant life on the Lower East Side, and even time for a digression or two, Nissenson compresses transitions and omits nearly all of Jake’s self-reflection. For a first-person narrative there’s surprisingly little of the personal in Jake’s fact-driven account; author and narrator let us draw the conclusions ourselves, as in this simple description of Jake’s job and his coworker:

I got eight cents for pressing a tweed jacket and a woolen skirt. The iron weighed fourteen pounds; it was one of those things you knew. I used two of them. There was always one heating up on the stove. I worked at a big table opposite Spiegel, another presser, who’d been at it for six years. His right shoulder was three inches lower than his left; the forefinger of his right hand reached his knee.

“What is it?” he asked me Wednesday afternoon. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing.”

I’d been staring at him. He turned a skirt without pleats inside out, spread it on his board, covered the seam with a strip of canvas, and then reached into the tin pail on his right, squeezed the water from the brown sponge and swept it up and halfway down the canvas, leaving a wet trail. It went on and on: a continuous movement of the lowered shoulder, the elongated arm, the hand wrapped in a wet rag. I saw the swollen blue veins on the inside of his wrist as he tossed the sponge back into the pail. When he picked up the iron, he grunted “Oy” under his breath, and a drop of sweat from his temple ran down the left side of his face; another hung from the tip of his nose.

On the way home, I bought a pack of Tolstoys—ten cigarettes for a nickel…

No comment on the implications of Spiegel’s work, minimal transition away from the scene. Perfect. Nissenson deserves more attention as one of our best novelists; I’m eager to read his latest, The Pilgrim, set in 1622.

3. Farthest North by Todd Balf, a short digital history of Elisha Kane’s disastrous 1853 Arctic voyage in search of the lost Franklin expedition of the 1840s.

As a committed armchair adventurer, I enjoyed this brief—and cheap ($1.99!)—tale of derring-do and unlikely heroes. A sickly sort from a prominent family, Kane drove himself to extraordinary feats. Balf writes some crystal-sharp prose in describing the otherworldly Arctic landscape, the jagged cliffs of ice, the myth of an Open Polar Sea to the north beyond the claustrophobic bergs. Here, though, the need for compression—the publisher’s requirement, I suppose—means that Kane’s background and psychology receive less development than I would have liked. I’m curious to learn more about his love affair with Maggie Fox, one of the three spiritualist Fox sisters of the mid-nineteenth century. Maggie was the one who renounced her séances as fake, and then, after Kane’s death, retracted her confession and went back to conning people. I’d also like to know more about some of the subsidiary characters on the expedition, both those who survived and those who didn’t. But for $1.99, I’m not complaining; Balf has done a fine job with this short-form bio-saga.