rev. of By the Sound by Edward Dornby
One of the things the novel can and often does do for its readers is to extend their range of sympathy, to make them see with a new clarity groups of people that might otherwise be forgotten except in statistical charts, and to make them feel that the individuals inside these groups partake of our common humanity. This is one of the main impulses of writers such as Dreiser, Steinbeck, or Solzhenitsyn, writers who not only want to record certain kinds of social oppression but also want to correct them. They take sides in their novels and openly moralize, preferring compassion and authorial commitment to aesthetic distance, and often they do bring about at least some social change. Such a writer is Edward Dorn in
By the Sound.
By the Sound was originally called
Rites of Passage when it was published in 1965, and now it is re-issued with minor revisions and the new, less pretentious title. It is a novel surprisingly conventional in form for Edward Dorn who has since he wrote this book come to be known for his wildly imaginative and original, comic and philosophical, open-ended poem
Gunslinger. By the Sound is a regional novel whose subject is a geographical area and the life style of the people who live there, and it is told in episodic chapters with such names as "The Unemployment Office," "New Year's Eve," and "The Deer" which are meant to reveal the rhythms of this way of life and its pleasures and despairs. One could look to
The Country of the Pointed Firs and
Winesburg, Ohio for its literary models.
The title refers to Puget Sound in Washington state, and the main characters of the novel, the people who are given sympathy, are the marginal workers who live in that generally grey, misty and smudged land. Carl Wyman and his wife Mary come to the Sound to escape life in the city, live there a year and a half which seems three in their minds, and then leave as the novel closes with their hopes abandoned. While he is there, Carl provides the kind of outsider's point of view that is needed to judge a way of life that those inside take for reality, and judge it he does by getting out there as soon as he can.
The problem these people have is that their work is seasonal for the most part and done mainly on the large farms. During the winter they visit the employment office regularly where they are subject to the casual inhumanity of the clerks, spend their time waiting and filling out forms, and seldom find jobs. When they do work it is often for seventy five cents an hour. The unions do not care for them because they have few skills and seldom can raise the initial fee to join. They live in pea camps made up of shacks that have little warmth or space. Some of them do carpentry, but most are odd job men who tramp down the hay in silos, gather eggs on the chicken farms or drive the small trucks.
Like prisoners, what sustains them is their friendships, their hopes to get out of the area and make a new life, and their interminable small talk about such things as whether or not Doris Duke smokes Duke's Mixture. Carl makes friends with the Henderssons and with James McCarty and his Eskimo wife, Ramona. Billy Hendersson gets blown out of a tunnel he is working in, gets his body repaired rather badly and is inadequately compensated. Ramona, the most interesting character in the book, has had a tubercular lung removed, and while she was in the hospital two of her five children had been placed in foster homes without her consent. She lives without underwear and without a decent toilet in one of the pea shacks and occasionally travels to Seattle in a wasted attempt to regain her other two children. She often drinks and cadges drinks in the bars of the town, but there is an energy about her that is wondrous and what she wants from life, a little personal dignity and her children back, seems so little
Edward Dorn tells these stories in a prose style that is sometimes awkward. He will use an occasional flat sentence ("She was interested in charities and indeed took in interest in people who were of the circumstances at hand.") and sometimes an affected word ("desiderata," "coprolalia") that is inappropriate for the story he is telling, but the compassion and power of the book make this seem incidental. He has a good sense for the feel of a geographical place and for the nuances of emotion. What he is telling us and the people in power in our country is "For God's sake, have a heart. Treat other people as human beings." It is the bell of the great moralists that must be continually sounded to keep us awake and alive.