Mystic Timber

As an epic vision of reality, Karl Marlantes’s Deep River takes up the enduring cultural theme of primitivism. By seeking out the margins of civilization, the author frees himself from culture’s endless entanglements. Marlantes was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. He shows (at times) a powerful command of the language. His novel’s hardscrabble loggers, farmers, and fishermen educate their children. But when the phrases “terrible beauty” and “band of brothers” grace this book, Marlantes isn’t thinking of Yeats and Shakespeare. The western literary tradition casts no shadow. It is strange that a historical novel should be, on a literary level, anti-historical. Looking closely, though, we find that this seeming paradox is no accident. Marlantes summons his readers to the early days of the Pacific Northwest, in order to pursue an alternative to modern civilization and escape what remains of the Christian imagination.

Deep River’s visionary burden falls on a Finnish blacksmith named Ilmari Koski. An immigrant homesteading in Washington State at the turn of the twentieth century, he is the first of three Koski siblings to escape the terrors of Russian occupation. Like other characters in the book, he is derived from The Kalevala, the Finish epic, which sparked a nationalist revival of the Finnish language upon its publication in the nineteenth century. J. R. R. Tolkien likewise found inspiration in The Kalevala.

A born mystic, Ilmari feels called to build a Lutheran church for the Scandinavian laborers settling the region. But after the horrible death of his beautiful wife, he rejects the church in favor of what he sees as a higher truth. He bonds with a wise old woman, a shaman whom the local Finns call Vasutäti. She is the last of her tribe, the fictional Ini’sal. In the mystical reality the two share by way of “some dried mushrooms,” Vasutäti becomes young again: “Vasutäti as he’d never seen her before, Vasutäti naked and young, her skin smooth, her body slender—her eyes sparkling with love.” The book’s esoteric wisdom consists in gnomic epiphanies addressed at this moment to Ilmari by “the forest god”: “The wind chases the wind.” Also: “If nothingness is something, then nothingness exists. Nothing exists, always.” Ilmari, taking in these insights after the mushrooms wear off, “wept with the terrible beauty of it all.”

Vasutäti (her tribal name is “Mowitch”) is a healer of great powers. She saves Ilmari’s life and the life of his infant niece. She teaches Ilmari’s oldest daughter the art of basket-weaving according to Ini’sal traditions. She dies with her dignity intact, in her forest shelter, alone. She bears a folkloric relation to Gandalf, to Obi-Wan Kenobi, and to the Yaqui Indian sorcerer Don Juan Matus. In terms of the power and the glory, the novel’s Christian population can’t touch her.

Marlantes is not the first post-Christian explorer of mystical reality. As a mystical nature-writer, he follows the transcendentalist path of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. One needn’t study Emerson and Thoreau to follow them. They are part of our history. Marlantes traces the pattern of Emerson, in particular, by siphoning power from Christian priests, who in his novel can say nothing of substance.

In his humble magnanimity, Marlantes does not suggest that his esoteric blend of mushrooms and pantheism could sustain a civilization. He is at least willing to make do with Christianity for its social utility. But the damage is done: another author of talent has decided against Christianity without examining it. Free will? Judgment? The existence of evil? Never mind! Then again, if we do happen to mind, we may wonder why the religious nature of our species is being repressed. We suspect it will return. The question is, in what form?

How any civilization views its priests is a matter of no small importance. We know of no successful civilization without a priestly caste. The history of western civilization is intertwined with the history of its priests. Priests may have too much authority, or too little, but when the priests lose all authority, it is impossible to replace them, except by rival priests. Our country’s colleges and universities, by converting their political beliefs into the dogmas of identity, are relearning the old lesson that no other institution can do the work of the temple.

And yet our leading writers no longer pursue serious theological questions. Where a basic acquaintance with Kierkegaard, Barth, and the Bible was expected of serious American writers after World War II, a know-nothing materialism is now fashionable. Dissenting voices have migrated to the back of the bookstore. The Catholic novel has gone underground. What survives of the tradition upheld by authors like John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy is the aging Marilynne Robinson. The upshot of this cultural vacuum is a big pulp market for fantasy novels, and, for the more refined, the varieties of mystical experience.

Mysticism is a permanent and important part of Christianity. But it is not the whole of Christianity. One of Christianity’s underrated sanities has been its ability to place mystical experience in a larger picture of the truth. In this respect, Marlantes takes a part for the whole. Mysticism comes first, and the rest of reality is reordered accordingly.

Ilmari and his resourceful younger brother Matti reflect, “Life was hard. Some people had it harder than others.” For the heroic loggers and fishermen whose company they keep, this is undoubtedly true. Violent death is commonplace. The innocent perish like flies. It isn’t a world that is self-evidently good. It isn’t anthropocentric. Justice does not apply when reality is most itself. The clannish, hardworking Finns will endure with their sisu—their Stoical grit. But one wonders, why bring children into this harrowing place? Why go on? Marlantes, we have remarked, allows Christianity to persist, a consolatory myth that continues to bind families and communities. Christmases are necessary occasions in Deep River. But none of the characters asks why this is so. If it is just a decaying myth, how could the bromides and fictions that make up Christianity’s stock-in-trade have sustained a civilization?

As an artist and a contemplative who aims to balance competing perspectives, Marlantes might have given the West’s religious crisis some thought. It is a crisis with great consequences for the arts. In his “Author’s Comment,” he writes that, before The Kalevala appeared in print, “Finnish mythical heroes were unknown, repressed by the Catholic Church of the Swedes and the Orthodox Church of the Russians.” Ecrasez l’infâme is an expression we have heard before.

Plot-wise, the protagonist is Ilmari’s younger sister, Aino. Her name, taken from The Kalevala, means “the only one.” Her life issues straight from the trauma room. At age three, she watches as her baby brother dies in her arms. The lesson? She “learned that no one was coming.” As a young girl in Finland, she suffers as the Russian occupation of her beloved homeland destroys her noble father and scatters her family. By age fourteen, she is a committed socialist. Her radicalized boyfriend dies as a result of her giving away seemingly useless information when the Russians are torturing her, in the most hideously intimate fashion. For the Marxist Aino—five feet four inches of Finnish fury and good-looking, to boot—western history awaits its final comeuppance.

Aino arrives in the New World a committed ideologue of the Left. She is a brave but unlikable young woman who betrays the trust of those who need her most. On the other hand, she is worth getting to know. Through her obsessive political commitments, Marlantes presents an edifying picture of capitalist exploitation in the lumber and fishing industries. His descriptions of steam donkeys and yarders, of logging shows and engineering feats to get the big logs to the Columbia River, are marvelous technical achievements in their own right. At the same time, he balances the workers’ experiences with a firm and at times appreciative grasp of the innovative daring and perseverance of independent capitalists. The monopolists do not come off so well.

Through Aino’s work for the International Workers of the World, aka the “Wobblies,” Marlantes probes America’s economic underbelly with unflinching rigor. His evocations of ruthless criminality in government, and its reliance on a crooked media, ring perfectly true. His tales of “deputized private detectives,” paid to beat the hell out of citizens practicing their rights of free speech and assembly, betray no sinister political agenda on the author’s part. Marlantes clearly disdains what one character calls “Blind patriotism.” But Deep River is by no means an indictment of decent patriotic traditions, or of the warriors that inhabit them.

Marlantes is, after all, known for his highly distinguished service as a Marine in Vietnam. War is never far from these pages, whether it is the Red Terror versus the White Terror in Finland; or the Wobblies versus the wage-fixing capitalists; or World War One jacking up the price of spruce; or the violence of gangland; or the brutal world of forest and river. War is part of life. But as Homer and Virgil teach us, war must be put into perspective. His addiction to war, to its gut-level demands and the kind of truth that it exposes, leads Marlantes, on occasion, to tolerate shallow dialogue: “Politics is just war by another means,” says an ultra-macho veteran reacting against the usual corrupt politicians. This is probably closer in spirit to Carl Schmitt than to General Clausewitz. It is something a soldier might say, more or less cynically, with a soldier’s right to cynicism. But, in the long view, it is a barbarian’s credo.

The author fails to establish an effective critical distance with respect to war. It is not that he is a war-worshipper. But he relies too much on war’s naked truths, and too little on Burke’s “decent drapery.” He glorifies a certain type of laconic, loyal, and Stoical soldier, the man who gets the job done against stiff odds. Deep River is a long book, its length padded out by the adventures of the “Bachelor Boys,” young Scandinavian-American veterans of the Great War who bond in order to survive and to escape the drudgery of normal society. This is the stuff of boys’ stories. We may recall the great scene in The Seven Samurai, after Kyuzo returns with one of the enemy’s muskets. Katsushiro stares at him with all hero-worship ever felt by good-hearted impressionable boys. But the film keeps its critical distance.

The surprising contrast to this male self-indulgence, though, is Marlantes’s uncanny sensitivity to the lives of his female characters. I cannot think of a recent novelist with a better gift for capturing the texture and atmosphere of female interaction. The sympathetic way in which he sets Aino at cross-purposes to the well-intentioned capitalist, Margaret Reder, is remarkably fine-grained in its psychology. Aino’s sister-in-law, Kyllikki, is memorable for the moral seriousness of her affections. The tough-minded, womanly women of Deep River supply a welcome alternative to the self-indulgent feminism that whines and snickers through much of women’s fiction today. Fathers looking to purchase a gift book for their daughters are duly advised.

The central arc of the novel turns out to be Aino’s growth as a human being, a process that has nothing to do with her brother’s mysticism. The sources of goodness and truth that give love permanence do not touch her political mind: love is a frequent but unexamined word in this book. Aino’s story is moving none the less. Like the Prodigal Daughter, she returns home. Her commitment to the cause of labor persists, enriched not by ideological abstraction, but by friendship, marriage, and the author’s continuing devotion to labor as a lived reality. In this respect, Marlantes’s astonishing wealth of detail, from clothing to housing to cookery, aligns the dignity of labor with the dignity of persons. Since this is his central accomplishment, we are moved to ask, after seven hundred pages of epic fiction and no shortage of mysticism, where does this history lead? By what means will our future continue to honor the human dignity that Deep River celebrates?