A few words on David James Duncan


Today I finished the third book in the trilogy of David James Duncan’s major works: River Teeth. The other two books are The River Why and The Brothers K, both of which I cannot possibly recommend highly enough. I recommend the third book just as highly, however I would read the two novels first before wading (har har) into River Teeth, which is a book of short stories and autobiographical pieces about transformation; sort of a book of Ovid for the 90s. While the book is certainly the equal of the other two it pays to have DJD’s sense of timing and narrative already firmly planted in your mind before reading; plus the book features a last glance at Evertt Chance, one of the brothers in The Brothers K, and is truly a joy to read after learning about his trials and tribulations in K.

Duncan, in these three books is focused on – obsessed with, haunted by, devoted to – water and transformation, and the play between the two. His characters are, in essence, baptized – reborn, transformed – by the lakes, rivers, creeks, oceans, and irrigation ditches of the Pacific Northwest. His characters seek out answers constantly, in books and from friends – Why is littered with choice quotes from The Compleat Angler to the Koran – and from that ultimate source, nature. The final truth of these books is that people can and will change, if they open their minds up wide enough. Thus Duncan’s protagonists drop the tops of the convertibles of their minds and let the wind blow Truth through their hair, although sometimes not without a bit of forcefulness. Gus, our hero of The River Why, takes painfully long to figure things out. Even being chased down by a beautiful girl, haunted by quotes tossed at him by his hippie bodhisattva friend, and facing the utter torment and sadness of his lonely life, he refuses to change, a refusal that is all the more painful for the reader because he or she surely recognizes this stubbornness in him/herself, and is no doubt embarrassed and hurt by it. I don’t want to spoil the ending but in the end what saves him is a fish, not a pretty girl or a fancy quote. In a flash of epiphany and ecstasy his world is switched on and he, and we, are allowed to move forward. Our joy as readers is tempered only by our lingering jealousy that he gets to change and we do not.

In The Brothers K, each brother takes his own path out of darkness, and all are not equally successful. Although each has his point of ecstasy and epiphany, for some of them the magic is fleeting – they climb just to the top of the canyon wall, only to stumble and fall back in just as they peek their heads over the horizon and see what could be. Although some of the clan does get to the top, the book is ultimately a tragedy, with joy again holding hands with sorrow.

River Teeth is a series of vignettes, some fiction, some more memoir-like snippets from Duncan’s own life. Again each is a tale of transformation, a peek into the clockwork machinery of the world and the return from that. As I finished this book today, over and over in my head I heard the word “ecstasy,” just the word flipping and sloshing around in my brain like a trout in one of Duncan’s Oregon rivers. The word, as far as I can tell, is never used in this book, however each story includes an ecstatic moment. In my mind (word geek that I am) I’m thinking of an older definition of the word “ecstasy;” today we use the word as a synonym of joy or happiness, but the word’s more archaic meaning is “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.” The word comes from Greek, ekstasis, “standing outside oneself.” To me this is the precise word to describe Duncan’s work, filled with characters succumbing to experiences of mystic self-transcendence. Gus’ transcendence comes not from a girl or a book or a shaman; it comes at night, alone with a fishing pole. Peter Chance, one of the brothers, chases transcendence through the words of every hold man he can possibly find, finally making a pilgrimage to India where he is transformed not by a yogi or a priest or an volume of Vedic literature, but by a robbery gone wrong, after which he is left alone and naked – literally. Everett Chance too takes the route of the lonely to find his way to transcendence, bathed for an entire winter in the slogging rains of Vancouver Island.

Beautifully written and wholly inspirational, I found each book infinitely rewarding, and I feel that subsequent readings will reveal even more. Sometimes a book – or in this case a trio of books – come along right when you need them, and when you read them you feel as if the writer is talking just to you and you alone, as if he is there to help you and guide you along. Sometimes a book gives you exactly what you need, nothing more or less, and you feel elevated, enlightened. The irony of these books and that feeling of enlightenment is that in Duncan’s books, as we’ve seen, words are useless. They can lead you down the path but it’s up to you and you alone to find the rest of the way. Transformation and ecstasy is left solely up to you. I hope for myself that I can someday finish what these books have helped me start.

Philip Larkin, “Aubade”
Sir Arthur Eddington said…

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