The New York Times – November 4, 2008
A Writer in a Living Novel
By CHARLES McGRATH
PARSONSFIELD, Me. — The novelist Carolyn Chute doesn’t have a working phone, a fax or a computer. She writes on a washtub-size electric typewriter that was probably state of the art in the ’70s. Ms. Chute (pronounced CHOOT) and her husband, Michael, live in a small compound at the end of an unpaved road in this rural Maine village near the New Hampshire border. There are stacks of old tires in the yard, a rusted bedstead, a pen full of Scottish terriers and an assortment of well-used vehicles. A bumper sticker on Mr. Chute’s pickup reads, “School Takes 13 Years Because That’s How Long It Takes to Break a Child’s Spirit.”
Mr. Chute, who looks like a 19th-century hunting guide, spends most of his time drawing and making sculptures in an unfinished, uninsulated building he calls the security office. He has a beard of ZZ Top proportions, wears checked shirts and round felt hats, and in Down East fashion frequently uses “wicked” as an adverb.
Ms. Chute, 61, a wry, direct and earthy woman who favors bandannas, peasant skirts and stout hiking boots, works in their home, which is guarded by a sign that reads: “Woa. Visitors Turn Back.” Neither building is heated, except by wood stove, or has hot water. The compound’s sole toilet is a tin-roofed outhouse.
The Chute home does have an industrial-size copying machine, however, and nearby she keeps her AK-47 rifle, which she likes because it has a gas piston that dampens recoil. “It’s very gentle, very soft,” she said. Ms. Chute, whose fourth novel, “The School on Heart’s Content Road,” comes out on Friday, had a surprise hit in the mid-’80s with her first book, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” about a hard-luck, occasionally incestuous clan that some critics compared to Faulkner’s Snopeses.
“If it runs, a Bean will shoot it,” she wrote. “If it falls, a Bean will eat it.” The book’s empathy and precise observation derived, it turned out, from personal experience. Ms. Chute, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Me., dropped out of school at 16 and supported herself and a young daughter by working as a charwoman, driving a school bus and plucking chickens.
Mr. Chute, her second husband, is illiterate and used to work as a woodcutter and gravedigger. They married in 1978 and later lost a child at birth because, she says, they were too poor to afford adequate medical and prenatal care.
Ms. Chute has been working on “The School on Heart’s Content Road” since the early ’90s. It’s part of what she calls a “5-o-gy,” a projected series of five interlocked novels about a communal Maine settlement led by a polygamous visionary named Gordon St. Onge, sometimes known as the Prophet. The story is told from multiple points of view, each introduced with a little pictorial icon, that include those of God, Mammon, the C.I.A. and television, which periodically babbles advice like: “These flavorful burgers, these potato-flavored salt strips, these fizzy syrupy brown-flavored drinks in tall cups are waiting just for YOU. Go to it! NOW!”
There are so many characters that there is a little guide at the end, with biographies — like the ones that Sinclair Lewis used to write for his characters — so complete that they sometimes go into more detail than the book itself.
The series comprises, in effect, an entire Down East Yoknapatawpha: hunters, snowmobilers, bikers, loggers, militia men, journalists, secret agents, wives, girlfriends and, in the case of “The School on Heart’s Content Road,” two deserted children who find a home for themselves in St. Onge’s off-the-grid settlement. There is even a thinking dog — a Scottish terrier, naturally. Ms. Chute says she got the thinking dog idea from Tolstoy.
The original manuscript was some 2,600 pages long — “with a lot of white space,” Ms. Chute said recently — and so capacious was her vision for the project that she was initially resistant to condensing it. The manuscript sat for a while in a box in the office of Cork Smith, a venerable editor who had been Ms. Chute’s discoverer and champion.
“I knew it was too long and rangy,” Ms. Chute said. “But Cork was right — I had to work through it in my head.” Mr. Smith died in 2004, and with the encouragement of her agent, Jane Gelfman, and her new editor, Elizabeth Schmitz of Grove/Atlantic, Ms. Chute began to restructure her mega-novel into self-contained, book-size chunks.
“Sometimes a manuscript is like bread dough,” she said. “You have to abuse it.”
For most of the time that she has been working on the book, Ms. Chute has also been greatly occupied with an organization called the 2nd Maine Militia, of which she is the founder and, as she says, “secretary of offense, or offensiveness.”
The copier in her living room is used to churn out tracts and fables, mostly written by Ms. Chute and illustrated by her husband, that set out the group’s political philosophy, which is essentially one of cheerful, nonpartisan economic populism.
The 2nd Maine Militia, or Your Wicked Good Militia, as it’s sometimes known, is progun, against corporate lobbying and campaign contributions, and opposed to tax subsidies for big business. The group has been known to meet in a hired hall, but more often it assembles in the woods behind the Chutes’ home, where the members shoot at cans and other targets, talk about what’s wrong with the world and dine on potluck.
In 1996, in an incident recreated in “The School on Heart’s Content Road,” the militia invaded the State Capitol in Augusta, carrying placards that read, “Smash Corporate Tyranny.” Many of the militia children were in costume, and Mr. Chute wore a Revolutionary War uniform. There were some kazoo-playing and a little shouting, and someone duct-taped a piece of cardboard over a portrait of Joshua Chamberlain, the Maine governor and Civil War hero.
The 2nd Maine Militia is a no-wing organization, Ms. Chute likes to say, with a membership that is “very right, very left and very shy.” At the first meeting, in the mid-’90s, she explained: “We had libertarians, greens, guys in camo, white supremacists, hippies off the land, anarchists, people from Communist organizations. All these people were people that someone had tried to take something away from. They all knew something was wrong.”
The coalition mostly got along, she said, except that for a while it became necessary to have separate meetings for the white supremacists and some of the more militant gun-toters. “The guys with the camo, after 9/11 happened, they became great patriots,” she said. “They started carrying the flag and shooting at targets of bin Laden and goofball stuff like that. We kind of saw less of those guys after that.”
“The 2nd Maine Militia has been a real learning experience for me,” Ms. Chute said. “Sort of like a living novel. I do feel like I’m on Pluto sometimes, just watching how people treat each other. And when I write, I just let my characters go, the way I let life go.”
She paused for a minute, looking out the window at the leaf-strewn woods. “I love people,” she went on, “but I don’t do so well in a system. We’re poor, and we lead a very different kind of life. We depend on other people so much. They come and bring us vegetables or whatever, and sometimes they tell us their secrets. They love Michael because he doesn’t look down his nose. If we’re in town, we’ll just sit in the parking lot all day, talking to people. That’s the way we see life: your community is your survival. And if you live in a small community like this, even the people you hate you have as friends.”