WHEN ANGELS REST
By Donald Harington
256 pages, $24
This is my first trip to Stay More, Ark. Some folks have been here nine times, visiting Stay More in such works as "Butterfly Weed," "The Cockroaches of Stay More" and "The Cherry Pit."
Stay More is a mythical hamlet in the comical Ozarks, population 179. The characters are up three scratches from the folks at Petticoat Junction, but fairly cartoonish. The question immediately is how far they can walk and talk in a longish novel.
Donald Harington does hillbilly Arkansas humor, with some dialect, as Garrison Keillor does Minnesota village humor, with no dialect. Up north, Lake Wobegon. Down south, Stay More.
Well, do I stay in Stay More? Do I sign on for more episodes? Do I begin a systematic reading, starting with the first volume, "Cherry Pit"? I'm not immediately kind to new places. I'm still loyal to Mayberry. I still find a Saturday evening walk around Lake Wobegon very enjoyable. Chopping carrots, Garrison Keillor resonantly goofy, ain't it great? I'm in Stay More, but on my guard, critical. Isn't Stay More, as a name, kind of clutchy?
We are in an immensely appealing high-stakes genre. Its dealers and players are heavyweights, rich, powerful figures. Hamlets, villages and towns collide, compete, become huge or disappear. Who can tell me about 79 Wistful Vista? Who can describe it and do its phenomenology? Lum and Abner -- what was their hamlet called? Alas, poor Dogpatch. And what was his story, Al Capp's, sort of a precursor for Harington? There's a sort of Dogpatch family rattling around "When Angels Rest," the Dingletoons.
Harington's narrator and protagonist, Dawny (Donny), immediately includes the reader and takes him or her into the fiction. He puts you there as he's being beaten by local bullies, his arm finally broken. He addresses you as "You," as "Friend," as "Gentle Reader." He understands that you can't come to his aid or even summon help. It breaks the plane, I think. Another thing that breaks the plane is actual historical narration of a GI's story of Iwo Jima.
Harington has situations, devices, but he doesn't have inventio, Cicero's word. Inventio is hard. If a thing has it, then everything soon is perfect: lighting, sound, set, story. This is what Cicero says. Think of Norton's apartment in "The Honeymooners," tonier than Ralph's apartment, which, for bare misery, is still unequaled. Think of the streets of Mayberry, of its countryside.
There are, of course, many loyal Stay Moreans who think Harington's fiction is loaded with inventio. They are, of course, right. I'm only quoting Cicero. It isn't a universal principle, inventio. When you see it, you know it. "To the moon," says Ralph to Alice, shaking his big meaty fist in her face, "to the moon." It summed up the '50s.
Our Huckish narrator, Dawny, "thoroughly 11, working on 12," edits his own newspaper in Stay More, the Stay Morning Star. The novel is largely his report of wartime life in Stay More, with some interpolation. There's a Doc Swain, an Ella Jean, an Ace Dingletoon, a Miss Jerram. We are in the splendid, simple '40s. Men and boys are away in the war. Things happen. Town rivalries seethe. An Army training unit bivouacs outside Stay More. At some moments you feel yourself close to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; at others, to Al Capp's Dogpatch.
Inside "When Angels Rest," apart from situation and device, is a memoir of growing up in the '40s -- child experiencing World War II, the situation, the events. School kids forage in the fields collecting milkweed pods, the down to be used in life jackets. They hate Japs more than Germans. They listen to "Fibber McGee and Molly" on the Philco. They hear of the death of President Roosevelt on the Philco. In Arkansas it is quickly remarked that Truman is from adjacent Missouri. Dawny's hero is Ernie Pyle, the legendary war correspondent. Throughout "When Angels Rest," there's an hommage to Ernie Pyle.
I pretty much stayed in Stay More for this reason, to share these recollections and pay my respects to Ernie Pyle. I, too, remember being in swampy fields collecting milkweed pods. In the hot sunshine, amid the bugs, I remember quickly realizing this labor-intensive gleaning of milkweed down was a hopeless labor for America's children. It was, I remarked, another adult stupidity kids had to suffer.
The '40s. Ancient history. Only a few can appreciate how good Harington is in rendering a kid's sense of World War II. That's the book's strength, maybe its inventio.