Tidewater Review - September 2010

 

The Night Blooming Cereus and Other Stories
reviewed by
Anne Stinson

 

The Night Blooming Cereus and Other Stories by Harold O. Wilson. 164 pages. $24.95.
Why, you may well ask, is this book critic sitting at the computer in her bare feet? She’s just had her socks knocked off, stunned by the work in a first-time book of fiction by a brand new writer on the scene. It’s comparable to finding a big gold nugget in your backyard when you only expected to plant a petunia.
The discovery of a stunningly fine writer in our midst is a fantastic pleasure. Hal Wilson, who lives on Kent Island, published this book himself, so modest he didn’t think a publishing house would be interested in his novella and several short stories in a small volume.
The book jacket, designed by his daughter-in-law, is gorgeous, drawing instant attention to the marvels inside the pages. Against a mountain scene of a weathered shed in black-and-white photography, a full-color 1934 Dodge coupe wraps around the book cover, its red chassis ad black fenders over white-wall tires with their wheel spokes painted bright yellow. It’s a chariot that carries two spinster sisters into a story of their life in the backwoods.
Fannie and Florence are the rod and sword of this tale full of grief, rape, evil from unexpected sources and resilience – nay, gutsiness of women.
The title story is prefaced by a quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The tragedy of the girls’ parents’ death in the car inspires the orphaned teenaged girls to paint the Dodge with settlement money awarded from the logging company responsible for the fatal accident. It could be a metaphor for defiance against disaster.
The structure of the novella is a tapestry of different voices in different times. It teases with a puzzle whose voice fits into the fascinating narrative as the sequence of events becomes clear. Each character emerges whole and vivid, as gripping as an IMAX movie where the actors land in your lap, adding dark and light color to the account of quiet joy and quiet pain, justice and punishment.
By page 86, the story has spun to a close after leapfrogging in time backward and forward from 1936 to 2007. The reader, like this one, may be breathless at the magic of Wilson’s talent and close the book to digest the feast of words before plunging ahead. There are five short stories still to come.
“The Chosen,” a mere eight pages long, is a microcosm of the same stunning power and awe at the pitiless heritage of a cruel legacy. Pause to breathe, readers.
“Tea at Four” changes the scene and tone entirely with brittle amorality. Oh, my God! Go for a walk, readers, before going on.
“Infidelity” is like a bad boy’s guilty dream. It would be wicked to give away the plot. Suffice it to say it could make you yearn to take a nap on an airplane.
“Caesar’s Tomb” opens with sentences so perfectly crafted they make the reader gasp, swallow and go back for another quaff. In this one, a minister is called on to calm a suicidal Vietnam vet. The opening sentence sets the tone of a life interrupted with these sentences: “Winter has set in. The bony fingers of the trees picked at the edges of the slate on the gray roof with soft irregular scraping. A ringing telephone shatters the lamp light of sleepy serenity. Faith takes a beating in the twists of this crisis.”
“Blood of the Lamb,” the final short story, is set on a hardscrabble farm in northern Florida for a shocking event, hinted at, but not revealed until the end of this tale of sorrow, deprivation and rage in which the main character, Ben, says, “Jesus ain’t done nothing for me.” The curse of primitive backwoods preaching sticks like a fish bone in the throat.
“Night Blooming Cereus and Other Stories” is no amateur writer’s timid effort. I cannot overstate the greatness of this book. It blew me away. It left me shaken by its beauty and compassion, its insight into the tough, gentle hearts of an isolated region of the south. I was enthralled by the richness of the writing. It made me feel as excited at its discovery as the first acquisitions editor must have been when the manuscript of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” landed on his desk.
Wilson’s book is a masterpiece. It’s almost a marker for this critic to retire. Nothing so wonderful is ever likely to come my way again. In my judgment, this book qualifies Wilson for literary fame.

The Oyster Question: Scientists, Watermen and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay Since 1880 by Christine Keiner. University of George Press. 229 pp. $44.95.
Should the Maryland section of the Chesapeake Bay be stocked with non-native oysters? How about leasing oyster beds to private parties for a type of aquaculture now common in Virginia waters of the estuary? And who knows better about the Bay and its management – scientists or watermen? And how and why did the oyster harvest almost vanish, and with it, a culture that sustained generations of tongers and dredgers?
These questions and many related ones have been the subject of legislative battles, opinion page dissections, heated discussions and downright quarrels from fisheries PhDs, lawmakers in Annapolis, environmentalists and the men engaged in finding and gathering oysters. It’s a trade that Christine Keiner describes as more dangerous than mining or logging.
She disputes the commonly held opinion among scientists and environmentalists that it’s mostly the watermen’s fault that there are so few oysters left. “They’ve overharvested,” is the general conclusion. In the epilog of this fascinating story, ‘Tain’t necessarily so, Keiner writes. She sees and posits a much broader set of factors.
In the roughly 130 years of the commercial oyster fishery, she writes, four major forces shaped its evolution. She lists: 1) specific debates on resource management, 2) a rurally biased state political system, 3) the cultivation of political clout by a non-elite user group and 4) the ecological system of the Bay itself. She adds that a fifth force, environmentalist values that emerged in more recent decades.
Each of these debates is developed in lively accounts of the players and their arguments. Period photographs and copious footnotes add to the free-for-all. The author has clearly done her homework. Unfortunately, at times the reader feels like s/he’s being asked to absorb too-huge chunks of information. Keiner’s writing, on the other hand, is more often brisk and to the point.
Keiner quotes a scene in the 1990s police drama, Homicide. In a fierce quarrel in a local bar, a biologist says that the oyster is practically an endangered species. An enraged waterman says, “We’re the endangered species – not the friggin’ oyster.” Clearly, a big gap divides the man in the boat from the man in the lab. The truth is, both men are right.
The scene is prefaced with the well-known geological facts of the birth of the Chesapeake Bay. Melting glaciers carved out the valley that carried fresh water to mix with tidal water some 10,000 years ago. Ecological and cultural impacts interacted about 3,000 years ago when native Americans lived in the region. Huge ancient midden heaps of oyster shells indicate that a taste for the bivalves is not a modern discovery.
Keiner points out the sometimes-overlooked effects of land use in the last few centuries, the population growth, the development of laws to “regulate the commons,” (indicating that oyster bars or rocks were neither owned nor leased) and the diverse skill sets required to harvest them.
If the author has a bias, it comes across as great admiration for the skills of watermen. Whether they operate tongs from small boats or drag dredges across underwater hills, the fact remains that they are “farming” areas they have never seen and, indeed never will be able to see.
From a lifetime of virtually working blindly, they learn to locate fertile “fields,” which may or may not be in the same place in a following year. They memorize mental maps of underwater features, learning where sandy or muddy bottoms are, how to read non-existent road signs by lining up trees or other distinguishing features on riverbanks. They memorize familiar current patterns and learn to read the weather by the sky. The work is brutally hard in all kinds of weather. No two days are the same and the watermen never get rich from their labor.
Nevertheless, most watermen fervently believe that, “A man wants to follow the water, ain’t neither way to keep him ashore,’ Keiner writes. This reviewer strongly suspects that she spent considerable time in Tilghman.
Countless hours of debate (and disagreement) have been spent by scientists vs. watermen over the merits and/or damages attributable to dredging from skipjacks, the close-to-moribund fleet celebrated as the last commercial sailing fleet in America. Watermen argue that the dredges scrape oyster piles clean of suffocating mud and silt and are beneficial to oyster health and growth. Scientists cite tonging as a more sustainable method. Never mind that it’s much more dangerous for watermen; the primitive, non-mechanical practice of manipulating the scissor-like clamps by hand from small boats strains muscles, can cause hernias, damage to eyesight and a bevy of other occupational hazards.
The great oyster boom of the Gilded Age, the expansive years before the turn of the 19th century also influenced the fate of oysters and their harvesters. Keiner paints a vivid picture of Baltimore harbor with boats unloading barrels for the packing plants served by railroads for nationwide delivery of canned oysters in winter and Eastern Shore peaches in summer. Employment hummed. The packing house gave Baltimore the reputation of a “stinking city” and nudged construction of its urban sewer system.
The newly-founded Johns Hopkins University (1876) found itself in the forefront of Chesapeake science and conservation. Pioneers in the field urged programs parallel to modern advances in agriculture. Their rallying cry was for private cultivation. Readers may note that the idea is still fiercely debated with the added feature, cultivation of Asian oyster stock. Your reviewer has seen watermen turn apoplectic at the mention of the scheme.
Keiner’s sage observations on Maryland politics note the disproportionate influence the relatively small number of watermen have on estuarine policy making. It’s a chapter that is enlightening, a case of “the wheel that squeaks gets the most oil.”
The best solution may be moot. The Oyster Question may be stymied by the lack of a subject if our luck doesn’t turn.
Read about it and weep.