NBAW, number 34: 1984’s Stones for Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr.

23 Jan

(I haven’t written any of these in a while. The reasons are manifold: one, I’ve been writing other things, and quite frantically; two, I’ve been reading a spate of new novels, including The Book of Strange New Things, Lila, and The Laughing Monsters, among others; and three, of the remaining National Book Award winners, I’ve read a number of them and are reluctant to re-read them, or they are hard to find, or they are intimidating [William Gaddis and William Vollman, in particular]. Anyway, here we go.)

1.

In 1984, Harriet Doerr won the National Book Award for her beguiling, elegant and at times horrifying little novel of stories, Stones for Ibarra. It was her first novel. She was seventy-four.

Doerr was born into a wealthy California family, and grew up in a world of rarified privilege. She went to college in the late 1920s, uncommon for women at the time. She married a wealthy businessman. They moved to a small, craggy hamlet in Mexico to run a copper mine—separated from the townspeople by a giant gulf of culture, language, money and class—and here her husband was diagnosed with cancer. They stayed in Mexico for years, he running the mine and she building some kind of life for herself, before her husband died. She then returned to the U.S., went back to school for creative writing, and when she reached an age when many people were playing golf or filling out crossword puzzles, she started writing short fiction.

This brief sketch of Doerr’s life is useful, for it is the exact plot of Stones for Ibarra. Here are the first lines:

“Here they are, two North Americans, a man and a woman just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico and already lost as they travel cross-country over the central plateau. The driver of the station wagon is Richard Everton, a blue-eyed, black-haired stubborn man who will die thirty years sooner than he now imagines. On the seat beside him is his wife, Sara, who imagines neither his death nor her own, imminent or remote as they may be.”

The Evertons are atheists and outsiders in a Catholic country. The novel follows five or so years in their lives and in the lives of Ibarra. The book has dozens of little stories, anecdotes, village folklore, but little in the way of a larger plot. The tone moves from the small-town gossip to the bemused outsider. And it is these two points of view—the rural, often superstitious, primitive and “backward,” and the urbane, worldly, cynical and “forward”—that collide throughout the novel, in alternating chapters.

A very fine novel of Americans in Mexico.

A very fine novel of Americans in Mexico.

Doerr has a horrid view of Mexican rural life. The lives of the various peasants are filled with daily violence and crippling boredom all tempered—or held in place—by a fatalistic stoicism. There’s no ambition, no prospects. Just drudgery and a dependence on the land or the largesse of wealthier peoples. And everything rests in a culture ruined by a particularly virulent strain of superstitious Catholicism.

Doerr presents within Mexico competing notions of civilization. The peasants of Ibarra find the behavior of the Evertons, and the basic amenities of city life they expect, to be strange. They also resist organization and planning, even when it would ease the town’s suffering. When the town has a problem with rabid dogs, the state sends a veterinarian to inoculate against rabies.

“On that day eighty-four dogs were immunized against rabies. And for every animal the owner was given a metal tag to attach to the collar he did not intend to buy.”

You can sense Doerr’s frustrations with the small-town mindset throughout the novel. A provincial small-mindedness. A dogged persistence to foolish, old ways.

Doerr’s writing style is elegant, spare and, the key word here, controlled. Here’s a sample, of two miners who are stealing from the mine:

“Crouched against the dripping walls, their mouths bitter with the taste of explosives and metal, they ate their lunches of rice and chiles, drank Pepsi Cola, and into the henequen bags that held these things they stuffed all the ore they could take away without suspicion. At the end of eight hours they carried the vividly striped sacks out of the tunnel, into the hoist elevator, and off down the road as if they weighed nothing and it was only pots and bottles that made them budge.”

This is very fine writing, spare but detailed.

But, well, it’s perhaps too controlled. These are men risking their lives for precious little, and the risks are underplayed. Other writers would stretch the thievery, elongate the tensions. Even the wilder events—and the book has suicides, murder, bar fights and so on—feel detached, pre-ordained.

She’s erudite and sophisticated, but also a touch dry and de-sexualized. There’s more than a touch of Paul Bowles in this little novel, the alienation and the odd chilliness radiating somewhere from within the sentences.

2.

Twelve years ago, a friend of mine said, concerning this very novel, “Well, you know what people say. Men write about big ideas, women write about small stuff.” She was comparing Doerr to Cormac McCarthy, who covers similar terrain.

I’m not sure about the idea of men and women writing about different things—there are plenty of women who traffic in big ideas, and enough male navel gazers to fill a museum—but I think Doerr is writing about big ideas, only in a peculiar way. For Ibarra is stuffed with opposites: belief versus non-belief, city versus country, Spanish versus English, and so on. And these opposites play out in her writing in an arch, yet also melancholic way.

In fact, I would argue that the problem with this novel—I enjoyed it quite a bit, by the by—is the effect her gloomy philosophy of pre-ordainment has on the overall drama. She’s a strong writer who writes some great scenes (perhaps the best follows Sara waiting for her husband in a café) but each scene carries little drama. She’s demystified things by zooming back and forth through time, and the result is a cogent argument for accepting one’s fate, but it lacks the pleasure, almost sexual, that you get when a good novel unfolds. Put another way: none of the characters seem to be acting on events. Everyone is wallowing in the flow of time.

There’s plenty of violence, too, including a pitiless drowning, a few savage beatings, even a murder or two. It all happens. It’s all part of that sunny world.

The closest novel to Ibarra is probably Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day, which also zooms in and out of time, and presents the deaths of certain characters in an offhanded way. And there’s something vaguely similar, in the novel’s structure, to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio (although I don’t think either Doerr or Anderson would appreciate the comparison). And there’s just a hint of Katherine Anne Porter here, too.

Finally, Doerr has the distinction, shared only with boxing writer F.X. Toole, of entering publishing in her seventies. The novel is short, but meandering; it takes an experienced, wise writer to do that.

3.

Of course, one of the big draws of this novel is the depiction, by an outsider, of the daily ordeals of the Mexican peasant. Doerr’s Mexico is a dry, dusty desert in a culture dominated by bullshit machismo and terrible violence.

American fiction has an on-again, off-again love affair with Mexico. (You don’t see any of the kind of fiery lust in regard to our other neighbor, Canada.)

Many of our finest novels deal with the border, not the least of which is Cormac McCarthy’s epic novel of racism and bloodletting, Blood Meridian, or his magnificent All the Pretty Horses. John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.—my vote for the greatest American novel—has sections set in Mexico. Wright Morris’s The Field of Vision involves American tourists in Mexico. Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano—loved by many, but not me—follows a drunken day in the life of an American in Mexico. And The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—we don’t know where the author, B. Traven, was from, but the fabulous film was made in the States—follows gold miners in Mexico.

This unstable love affair is even more prevalent in films. There’s something—and this is the cartoon version of it, I know—about the spice, local color, superstitions, grinding poverty, horrible violence and rampant corruption that entices writers and filmmakers and artists.

And, well, there is something exploitative, discomfiting and cartoonish about America’s creative class and their relationship to Mexico. But this makes sense, as a larger exploitation has existed between the two countries for over almost two hundred years. Doerr, and she isn’t alone here, presents a Mexico that seems inhabited by a totally alien mind, a landscape hammered by angry gods, a people blind to their own stagnation and confused by the very revolution that created the country they live in. You can almost hear Doerr screaming through her work: modernize! Update! Get with the fucking program!

I’m not faulting Doerr for her beliefs; she lived in Mexico for close to a decade. She saw what she saw. She lived through what she lived through. But I think The Savage Detectives, as just one example, delivers a more rounded view of Mexican life (with more humor and self-awareness. Also, lots of sex.)

4.

1984 was a great year for American fiction, both high and low. Louise Erdrich won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award[1] for her magnificent Love Medicine. Tom Clancy put out his military thriller, The Hunt for Red October[2]. Thomas Pynchon released his only volume of short stories, Slow Learner. Gore Vidal published the critically lauded Lincoln. William Gibson released the early cyberpunk masterpiece, Neuromancer. Stephen King and Peter Straub put out their very fine young adult fantasy, The Talisman. Sandra Cisneros published her excellent short story collection, The House on Mango Street. Padgett Powell, William Kennedy, Philip Roth, Kent Haruf and Allison Lurie all published fiction in a very crowded, dynamite year for American letters.

Around the world, fiction was cresting. Milan Kundera published his best novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. J.G. Ballard released his epic, autobiographical novel of living in a Japanese concentration camp, Empire of the Sun. Thomas Bernhard put out his excellent, disturbing novel, Woodcutters. The always interesting Julian Barnes published Flaubert’s Parrot. And Ian Banks released his highly lauded disturbed vision of British society, The Wasp Factory.

Amongst this impressive list, Doerr stands out partially as an oddity—due to her age and the chilly polish of her prose—and partially on the strength of her haunting, elliptical writing. It’s a tough case to argue her novel is better than Love Medicine, or some of the other novels here, but Stones for Ibarra is in its way unforgettable and moving.

[1] I plan on doing entries for these, too. Maybe?

[2] Okay, not for me, but he isn’t horrible.

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