Atticus Books, 2011
224 pages,Â $14.95
Like many â€˜80s babies raised in or around mid-sized Midwest cities, my interaction with nature was largely confined to backyards, bike trails, cornfields, and the inevitable pumpkin patch. Iâ€™ve spent a healthy amount of time outdoors, but it was/is often blinkered by our collective noisenoisenoise. Whatâ€™s the allure of genuine, pissing-in-bushes nature when you can lie in bed with paperback Thoreau and countless nature stories/poems/essays online at the same time?Â But of course, this manmade clusterfuck we call modern life can be hollowing, grating, at times like one long blinding hallway, day after coffee-soaked day. Donâ€™t you ever want to just run away? And isnâ€™t it ball-busting that we even created money? Whatâ€™s the allure of this life if you canâ€™t stand the people in it, or if you donâ€™t have people in it at all?
The Bee-Loud Glade takes the twinned dissonance between culture and nature, company and solitude, and braids them into one cleverly postmodern allegory that is a testament to Steve Himmerâ€™s ability to write a thoughtful, funny, tender novel full of memorable characters and heart-stilling moments.
Â The premise is pretty unique: meet Finch, media advertising blogger for Second Nature, a company that manufactures artificial plants (which is just perfect, isnâ€™t it?). His life is a depressing blend of isolation, anonymity, interior fantasy (via his multitude of blogger identities), and soul-kicking corporate routine. Finch is a man who wonâ€™t be missed. No one in his office seems to even know his name.
Once he is expectantly freed from his drone life, Finch slouches into an urban hermit existence. During his graying expanse of days, he fantasizes about his bloggers and what they would be doing if they were in his position, if they were heart-and-guts real.
Â Some of my bloggers weren’t as stable or steady as others. One of them, I knew right away, would kill himself instead of hurting anyone else. But he would have a hard time working out how. I stared at the plaster swirls on the ceiling and thought of pills, and of trains, and of bombs strapped to chests. But none of that would appeal to him. He wasn’t selfish, just sad. He had two rules: number one, no mess left behind, and number two, no shocking discovery of a body that might damage someone for life.
It took me all night to settle on the most polite, selfless suicide I could muster on his behalf: he would sneak into a restaurant’s kitchen after closing and enter its walk-in freezer with a body bag and sleeping pills. Before taking the pills, he’d hang a note on the outside of the door asking restaurant staff not to open the freezer themselves but to call the police to do so. Then, in the freezer, he would take all the pills and zip himself into the bag. The opaque body bag would prevent anyone but trained professionals from accidentally seeing the corpse, and the freezer would keep it from decaying and creating a stench.
Just as Finchâ€™s life begins to truly crumble around him and he is quietly facing homelessness, he answers a spam email advertisement with a single word: Yes. This is when the readerâ€™s patience with Finchâ€™s flat life pays off and we are swept into a limousine along with our narrator, who is on his way (unbeknownst to him) to meet Mr. Crane, the quizzical billionaire, the man with the story-making request: live under a vow of silence, in Mr. Craneâ€™s garden, as a hermit for seven years, for the tidy sum of five million bucks. As weâ€™ve come to expect from Finch, he accepts without debate, signs the contract, and is led by Mr. Craneâ€™s butler, Smithee, down into the garden.
Himmer is particularly adept at narrative contrast: this novel is told in chapters trading between past and present, floating back and forth through several years of Finchâ€™s life, weaving together his time before the garden, his early years in the garden, and his current life, years into his term, losing his sight and therefore his autonomy, and confronting the spontaneous arrival of a couple, two hikers, who have set up camp in the midst of his world, shattering his routine and colonizing his thoughts.
Himmerâ€™s depiction of Finchâ€™s early years in the garden are where the bulk of both his most humorous and musical passages lie, where Himmerâ€™s care for nature shines, as well as the tender, curious relationship that develops between our silent hermit and Mrs. Crane, the fuck-me-sideways-youâ€™re-so-gorgeous ex-actress wife of our eccentric billionaire. I must confess that I was particularly fond of her entrance.
Â A woman was walking in my direction on legs so long there’s no way to describe them without stupid clichÃ©s. She wore cutoffs so short that a tongue of white pocket hung down each leg, and her hair was as yellow as waxed lemon rind. Like a magazine page on the move, her breasts were barely draped in twin triangles hardly large enough to suggest a bikini. I hadn’t seen a woman in a long time, and what a first woman to see. She carried a gray metal bucket, and it bounced against her thigh with each step.
As she drew close, the mist rose around her like a special effect, giving the moment a sense of slow motion or of a TV show’s opening credits (an impression that made more since once I realized who she was)…
I tried to keep my eyes on the sunrise and the wakening flora and fauna, but it was hard to ignore her approach. Her feet were bare, crosshatched by wet grass from her walk down the hill, and her toenails and fingernails were all painted the same shade of orange as her bikini and dangling surfboard-shaped earrings.
Mrs. Crane enters into Finchâ€™s world as a cautiously welcome companion, further complicating his contentment with solitude. Mrs. Crane is a harkening back to the world he left behind, and a reminder of the dark rim around the cloud above him, the mansion and the mysteriously powerful Mr. Crane, whose true motive for employing Finch is unknown, who moves in and out of Finchâ€™s life like rain, who evaporates one day, and leaves Finch all alone; that is, until the hikers.
Himmer is clearly a great lover of nature, and a master of mixing humor and awe to create a satisfying read. This is not a simple ode to flora and fauna. This is not a condemnation of solitude or society. This is an unraveling of allegory, a quirky dream world, and an engaging tale with an ending that left me with this one bone-touching word: Yes.
Dawn West (b. 1987) reads, writes, and eats falafel in Ohio.