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Scarlet letters 

Good fiction writing may be distinguished by any number of remarkable qualities, but the best novels, from Anna Karenina to Lolita, are marked, almost universally, by one trait: moral complexity. Reading a novel can never be a purely aesthetic experience, a simple surrender to the incantatory power of words. Wherever language is employed in art, there is an attempt to get at meaning. Wherever there is an attempt to get at meaning, there is an emphasis on values. And where there is an emphasis on values, there is an opportunity for the artist to turn homilist. Achieving moral complexity in art tends to be easier said than done.

The pressure to provide absolutes makes moral complexity difficult to arrive at; uncertainty makes us anxious. And so an author who refuses to tell his audience what to think about the characters and incidents in his novels, or who makes his position opaque, is viewed as being difficult. (Never mind deciphering the moral implications behind a novel's formal technique.) Doesn't he know that it's bad to cheat on your wife or to steal from a friend? Doesn't he think murder is inherently evil? Great writers like the tone of these questions, the undercurrent of doubt and frustration that reveals our discomfort with "context." Entire university English departments have been built on the problem of context in contemporary literature; whole writing careers have been spent exploring it. English professors labor to wrap works of literature in it, but their job is easy compared to that of the writer, who struggles to create context within a work, knowing it can change with a single sentence.

In an essay describing his evolution as a writer, New England author G.K. Wuori has meditated on the problem of context in 20th-century literature. The essay, "Reflections in a Keyhole Eye," opens with a headline from the Nov. 26, 1996 issue of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: "Heston's Taped Reading of Nietzsche Helps UW Team Find Vascular Problem in Dental Assistant." The headline, Wuori writes, nearly made him fall out of his chair the first time he saw it. What's to be made, he wonders, of such a massive conjunction of disparities, this "bringing together of things that are never together"? There must be some shred of logic behind it, but he admits to never quite being persuaded it's there. Only the artist in him feels comfortable with putting Charlton Heston and Friedrich Nietzsche together. "And if the mediator of their conversation is a hapless dental assistant with a defective brain," he concludes, "what else can we really expect from this century?" Wuori leaves unsaid his conviction, implicit in his fiction, that it's left to the artist to provide context for the bizarre, incongruous juxtapositions provided by modern life.

G.K. Wuori, whom critics have compared to Thornton Wilder and Sherwood Anderson, has already been pigeonholed as a great manipulator of the crudest elements of fictional context, those evocations of place, incident and characterization that supposedly "draw pictures" in a sensitive reader's head. Wuori is also credited with possessing a mordant wit. These aren't the extent of his gifts, but they're undoubtedly among them. At times, he is even so skilled at this level of writing that it obscures the intellectual mortarwork he has done to the foundations to his stories.

The 18 short stories in his first book, Nude in Tub, introduced readers to the "eccentric" inhabitants of the "quaint" small town of Quillifarkeag, Maine. Nude was one of 1999's most original collections and brilliant on its own terms, but it may have lowballed readers by ladling on a bit thickly the quirky, small-town charm and morbid irony. Readers became familiar, for instance, with indelible characters like Alice Pawchawk and Fence Dzfru, who, out of general discontentment with living a settled, married life, paint themselves white and their house black; keep a frozen chicken tied on a rope to the front porch like a pet; and finally, after these obvious cries for help fail, begin to have sex on a pair of La-Z-Boys in the middle of a well-traveled road. They are largely ignored, or encouraged with tossed condoms; eventually, they divorce.

Then there's Lawyer Peterbuoy, an attorney who employs his own radical system of justice in "defending" abusive spouses. First he offers the offending husband a few days of respite at a place in the country, to think over what he has done. After negotiating the accused up to his place "like a branch into a leaf chopper," Peterbuoy tells his client's family and friends that the man has been offered work and rehab far away. Eventually the accused is killed and disposed of somewhere on Peterbuoy's 700-acre estate. Townswomen who threaten to turn their men in are saddened when their husbands say they will get Lawyer Peterbuoy to defend them because "he ain't lost yet." For his part, the attorney defends his practice by saying that it has never been the purpose of justice to make people happy.

What, exactly, the purpose of "justice" is may be the underlying theme of all of Wuori's fiction, including his new novel. An American Outrage, also set in Quillifarkeag, Maine, not only questions the purpose of justice, but also asks where it ends. When long-time Quillifarkeag resident Ellen DeLay leaves her happy marriage of 25 years to go live alone in the woods (the scarlet "A" we imagine her wearing on her breast stands not for "adultery," but for "alone"), her strange behavior represents a transgression of social form so acute that it takes an equally radical act to "right" things. "I was everything to a man who wanted nothing," she says. "I was a revolutionary without complaint." Her murder--she is found riddled with 200 rounds of bullets, fired point-blank by four female officers of the law--sets off a series of retributive acts that may or may not tip the scales of justice back into balance. Wuori's deft handling of the material leaves the reader feeling superficially satisfied and yet deeply perturbed. If justice has been meted out, why does it feel like something is still amiss?

This sand-in-your-swim-trunks irritableness is the calculated result of Wuori's carefully placed ambiguities. He encourages our worst instincts, like the nagging suspicion that those who have suffered great calamities somehow had it coming. After hearing a logging truck hit a sheep and leave it to die in a ditch in front of her house, Ellen ponders the improbability of the accident. "I just know," she writes to a friend, "that for as much as both that sheep and that truck had a blazing infinity of points in space and time from which to choose--they had chosen a flawed infinity. That seems to be the story of most victims, isn't it? They make choices. They lead themselves by the hand. They blow it big, babe."

This disquisition on victimhood, delivered by a woman we know to have been blown to bits later by shotguns, might seem repulsive to some readers, a morally reprehensible choice on the author's part. But in one sense it is merely an elaboration of Shakespeare's most famous query, "To be, or not to be?" with an evaluation of the choices tacked on the end (to choose a "flawed infinity" is to "blow it big.") How attuned are we to our constant flirtation with non-being? Had Ellen been flirting with "not to be" without quite realizing it? And what role do others play in making this choice?

Wuori is even more interested in the psychology of characters incidental to the novel's central, provocative act (Ellen's move to the woods, leaving her loving husband), who pass judgment on this act based on imperfect information and near total lack of understanding. By placing early in the novel Ellen's encounter with the stray sheep--who, by her metaphysical account, must have somehow chosen to be killed--Wuori closes the circle of judgment. We are all trapped in this cycle, endlessly, daily judging one another--even sheep. In An American Outrage, the cycle ultimately turns bloody. To what extent that outcome is necessary, or just, is the author's provocative question. Tellingly, Wuori leaves it to the reader to decide. EndBlock

  • In An American Outrage, G.K. Wuori returns to Quillifarkeag, Maine, to explore the extremes of justice.

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