Rudimentary – Women’s Review of Books, 11/14/2007

You do not want to play Scrabble with Annie Dillard. Not that she’d invite you over. But if she did, after offering you an excellent adult beverage and perhaps leaving a Lark smoldering in a tartan plaid, beanbag ashtray, she would kick your ass. She knows lots of words, and she knows exactly where and when to put them down. Every one racks up at least a double-word score. As a Scrabble buff and a nineteen-year, off-and-on resident of Provincetown, the setting for Dillard’s second novel The Maytrees, I have walked the dunes and I know the scenes, like this one, that she describes:

“Above the Atlantic’s rim she saw a rain’s fallstreaks curve. A stillness of empty space marked all she saw. It was this loping shore of mineral silence people meant when they said ‘the dunes.’ The surface of the moon might look like this: rudimentary.”

Dillard captures Ptown in all its seasons, summer people and constant tidal changes. The Maytrees fills the fiction gap between Provincetown memoirs such as Mary Heaton Vorse’s Time and the Town and Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, and Karen Krahulik’s historical study Provincetown: from Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort.

Dillard claims that after writing The Maytrees, she is tired, and she is not going to write any more novels. This is understandable, but it’s a loss. And eight-year project, The Maytrees was originally 1,200 pages long and packed with historical and natural detail, but Dillard decided that her simple love story could not support all that. Although she fully renders the characters of the Cape, and the cape itself as a character, in the 217 pages that remain, one wishes the edited material could be an addendum to the book, like the extra features on a DVD.

Set in the 1940s, The Maytrees is the love story of Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree. They court, marry, and have a son, Petie. Toby leaves Lou for the town hoyden, Deary Hightoe, and the two move to Maine. Lou raises Petie and achieves a life without resentment. Twenty years later, Deary develops heart problems, and Toby returns with her to Provincetown. Lou cares for Deary, who is, after all, her old friend, and Lou and Toby reconcile. These are the bare bones of the story.

Today, the few remaining old-time year-rounders often refer to Ptown as the world’s largest open-air insane asylum. The Maytrees is peopled with a supporting cast of nonconforming characters: Reevadare Weaver, the much-married, much-hennaed, BYO-everything party giver; Cornelius Blue, a full-bearded denizen of the dune shacks, the remote, falling-down artists’ dwelling along the ocean; Hiram and Elaine Cairo, professor from New York; Jane, their non-dissertation writing daughter who marries Cornelius, twenty years her senior; and Lour, Toby, and Deary themselves. Deary in an architect who sleeps in the dunes wrapped in sails because “she claimed to like the way the starlight smelled on the sand.” Toby, a veteran of Word War II, moves houses in Ptown for a living and writes epic poems in red composition books.

Toby leaves Lou the day after Petie is hurt in a bicycle accident. Toby uses his wife’s willingness to forgive the driver who’d hit her son to bolster his decision, although he himself will ultimately benefit from Lou’s capacity for forgiveness. Lou, who had watched her mother polish her grudge against her father, who abandoned the family, as “the sold project for the balance of her life,” decides that she will not be “ ‘Poor Mom’ with periodic walk-on roles as grieving and piteous victim.” After her dune neighbor, Cornelius says, “Lou, I wish you’d stop poisoning yourself,” she hikes up he Pilgrim Monument, a granite tower in the center of town:

From the top she looked at flat sky, flat sea and flat land. She was ready to want to stop this. Thereby se admitted – barely – that she could choose to stop. For one minute by her watch, she imagined liked Maytrer impartially. For only one minute by her watch she saw him for himself. That day, having leg go one degree of arc only, for one minute, she sighted relief. Here was something she could do. She could climb the monument every day and work on herself as a task. She had nothing else to do. Their years together were good. He was already gone. All she had to do for peace was let him go.”

Her monumental, quotidian grieving frees her, and thus free, she hopes “scandalously” to live her own life. She tries to hear her own thoughts. She reclaims “what she had forfeited of her own mind, if any. She took pains to keep outside the word acceleration.” Her dune shack becomes the room of her own. “The bay and ocean and daytime sky did not change. Lou lived in color fields. By habit, she ignored the Cape’s manmade changes.” She paints again. A true New Englander, she cuts out al radios but the Red Sox. She learns to look our for “resentment, self-cherishing and envy. Though town, national and world life gave her fits, she formed the habit of deflecting them before they dug in.”

Freed from the “tar pit” of grief and the miasma of town gossip, she wonder, “Why take personal offense if two fall in love?” She enjoys the newsy letters Cornelius receives from Maytree, orders his new book of poetry, and writes to Maytree and Deary, inviting them to back to Provincetown.

As the real estate boom and big money – for some, at least – have hit Ptown with a plague of gussied up, airtight houses equipped with motion-sensor security lights, I read with nostalgia of the Ptown of old. Dillard says she wanted to call her book Romantic Comedy about Light Pollution, but her publishers didn’t like her joke.

As a manual for transcending life’s sorrow and savoring life’s joys, The Maytrees is the most practical of self-help books.

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