Book Review—George Handley, American Fork

In his debut novel George Handley displays the same attentive care to the color and bend of a single leaf as he does to the tempo and tenor of the human heart. The two really aren’t so different—each existing within larger webs of relationship, each displaying something of the majesty and precariousness of God.

American Fork is a book about intersections—environmental, national, personal, and theological. Aging environmentalist Zach (Zacharias) Harker enlists Chilean immigrant, artist, student, and newlywed Alba Hidalgo to create art for his book project. As a researcher who never finished his PhD, the seventy-plus-year-old Harker wants to create a tome displaying nature’s intricate interconnectivity as well as humanity’s urgent need to change our destructive behaviors which compromise the whole. “This book [we’re creating] isn’t about finding and naming plants,” he tells the young artist, “It’s about creating relationships between the reader and this place” (141). His text, alongside her art, will guide the reader to see the inseparability between humans and our environment.

Despite his academic-artistic argument for connectivity, Harker himself is an isolated man trapped by the dead ends, losses, and regrets of his personal history. By contrast, Alba is energized and pulled forward by mysteries from her past—a father she barely remembers who was “disappeared” in Chile under the terrors of Pinochet’s regime. During the course of their project Harker encourages Alba, somewhat to the chagrin of Alba’s white American Mormon husband John, to seek the truth about her past in Chile. What she discovers leaves her more deeply rooted in her past but more free to create a future that transcends it.

Harker is an irascible hermit of Utah’s American Fork, a nature lover, a cultural critic whose former Mormon faith sticks in his fingers like slivers—small flecks of history and doctrine, slightly painful, irritating; he can’t help but apply pressure to them, running his fingers together, resisting the urge to extract them because something in him seems to relish the pain of past faith. In fact, for a self-proclaimed agnostic Harker spends a good deal of time thinking about at least the implications of God—a not unusual impulse for someone who grew up in an environment dominated by religion. Harker’s God, if there is one, has to account for the ants, the microbes, the defecation, as much as the shining sun and stars in their glory, as much as the humans walking the earth.

One of Harker’s keenest insights comes early on: “I suppose if I find God, it is when I lose myself in this world, and that is not really so much a discovery of something or someone divine as it is a peaceful acceptance that I too am a dying body” (51). Faith as peaceful acceptance of uncertainty—and ultimately death—is a stunning theology, but one that will be hard-won in the end, in the actual breathing out of a life like Harker’s, riddled as it is by sorrow over the loss of family.

Liberal-inclined Latter-day Saints will find familiar tropes in Harker’s complaints: Girls marry too young and postpone or abandon their education as a result; young men pursue business or law, money-making opportunities to be good providers, without thinking of larger questions about justice; people of faith offer platitudes about God helping them find their keys while their neighbor dies of cancer; earth stewardship has no home for many Mormons who believe the Lord will take care of the earth and the second coming will be here soon enough.

If Harker’s continuous environmental rants are true—we humans have set ourselves apart from nature in so many ways with our temperature-controlled homes and selfish modes of transportation, and yes, climate change is real and humans are its driving factor—then what does Handley gain by placing them in the mouth of a character many Latter-day Saint readers will likely find off-putting, if not outright arrogant and unbelieving?

This gets to the heart of Handley’s first novelistic effort, and it’s a subject that plays out within the book itself in a discussion over the function of art (see p. 61). Should it lull, confirm, and pacify, or does the best art challenge and confront? As if in answer to this very question, American Fork itself is not light reading. The underlying current of angst through its first half only slightly lifts as the novel’s pace picks up later on. Angst about familial disconnect. About environmental degradation. About lost faith.

Apathetic and environmentally unconscious Mormons aren’t the only ones challenged in American Fork. Harker makes occasional honest efforts to remember that Latter-day Saints have hearts, endure pains, and can exhibit the ability to step outside of themselves. Alba and her husband are unapologetically and enthusiastically Mormon and they are growing on him. Through Harker, Handley calls both the bright-eyed as well as the cynical readers to repentance. This is straightforward “art as repentance” (79)—an especially precarious effort always threatening to devolve into soppy platitude or hypocritical harangue. Handley skillfully navigates these shoals, almost always with the appropriate level of subtly.

The questions raised in American Fork will stick with you, sliver-like, just under the surface of your skin, and then down deep in your heart (if those questions aren’t already there, in which case it’s still moving to find co-wonderers like these). Is the experience of “fullness” in life static, or is it dynamic? Through an attentive environmental lens, Handley affirms dynamism, which allows for freedom and connection but also entails much suffering, risk, and pain—all with the possibility of discovering joy and, perhaps, recompense.

 

Review of George Handley, American Fork (Roundfire Books, 2018), 388 pp.

 

Because everyday is like a newborn
still as the sun,
and if no-one is watching
does our love leave any trace?
Or just an echo out in space?

—Blitzen Trapper, “Echo”

Comments

  1. Well glory day, Mr. Hodges, you make this book a can’t-wait-to-read! But I must say, you write spectacularly, indeed!!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    That was one literate book review; thanks.

  3. Thanks, you two.

  4. Well said, maestro!

  5. Thanks, WVS.