With his new novel, Lost Nation, Jeffrey Lent has proven that there are second acts in American literature. Following on the success of his first novel, In the Fall, Lent has produced a second book with the same sort of tragic power and dignity.
The comparisons that have been made between Lent and Cormac McCarthy are understandable: both writers have mastered the art of the unspoken. Perhaps both learned from Hemingway that poetry and truth can be found in what is never said. But Lent is an original, no imitator of McCarthy or Hemingway or anyone else, for that matter. He is a writer of such breathtaking talent and honesty that one feels compelled to group him with the greats of American literature. But, finally, he stands alone, as all true writers do.
In this follow-up to In The Fall, a young woman finds a way to survive in a brutal landscape.
A novel of brutal originality, Lost Nation is reminiscent of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! or McCarthy's The Crossing—both tragic tales of secrets circling in their own slow way toward truth. Blood, the main character of Lost Nation, could be a scion of Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen, a man with a soul like a closed wound and the morality of a panther. His two sons, young men of taciturnity and deep feeling, are reminiscent of Boyd and Billy Parham in The Crossing. But Sally, the teenage prostitute that Blood wins in a card game in Portland, Maine, transcends any female found in the work of the great novelists. The kind of young woman a man like Blood had ceased hoping for, Sally is everything he did not deserve, a woman who finds a way to face the world without flinching, who finds a way to survive with her soul mainly intact.
And the world Lent creates is not an easy place in which to survive. Set in mid-19th century New England in a lost place known as Indian Stream, the book opens in familiar epic territory, in medias res, with Blood in hobnailed boots and rotting leather breeches, leading an oxcart with the barefoot Sally tied behind it and a mastiff hound named Luther trailing alongside. Heading into the bleak wilderness carrying rum and stores of supplies to set up shop on the edge of civilization, Blood is running from something in his past, in himself something that makes it easy for him to use other people hard. He opens up a tavern and sells Sally's services to the locals, but she is not some waif, helpless and adrift in a world of men. Sally is a match for Blood and for the trappers and outlaws who compose her toughened clientele in Indian Stream, and through the hardness that life has created within her, she is able to maintain her strength of spirit.
Lent creates a strange, violent landscape dotted with corpses, decapitations, rapes, suicides, masturbating monkeys, hangings and slit throats, but it's not the strangeness one is left with, rather the odd familiarity of a dream come clear. The whole book has a sort of power and heartbreaking truth to it, a quality of something long forgotten and now remembered with brilliant clarity. Each time the story takes a turn, you think you know where the road is heading, until Lent opens up a new path in the plot. Which brings me to my penultimate point: this book is a mystery tale, of sorts. It unravels its truths in its own fashion, slowly peeling away one reality after another, and therefore it would be unfair for this reviewer to reveal any more of the story. So, finally, read it.
Dr. Michael Pearson directs the Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University.