Why The Tree Loves The Ax

Ally Eckhoff reviews 'Why the Tree Loves the Ax' by Jim Lewis.


Sally Eckhoff
February 20, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Instead of making a splash when she moved into the southern hamlet of Sugartown, Caroline Harrison made a big dent: After rolling her car just outside the city limits, she had to be carried into town on a stretcher. Fortunately for her, the talented Jim Lewis has contrived to make his heroine a little less than human, and thus she survives. From square one, the author's decision to create a protagonist with a sharp outline, a sinister profile and not much depth rates as a stylish move in contemporary fiction. If that's also how you make a paper doll, it needs to be said that Lewis is a pretty hot guy with the scissors.

Being a pansexual, turn-of-the-millennium rolling stone has to be a lonely job. Because she's introduced in such a violent fashion and so soon thereafter takes on the quiet life of a nursing-home employee, Caroline is wired to explode, and sure enough, she does, but not until someone throws a drink on the mayor at a town picnic. The ensuing chaos quickly becomes a riot. Seeing a handcuffed man being savaged by two angry cops, Caroline hefts a baseball bat and swings for one of the uniformed heads. But nobody sees her do it: "In one sweet move I had skipped sideways about a hundred feet," she says, and she's free to go on the lam, finally winding up clear on the other side of the country in a different kind of trouble.

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A disaffected, timely thriller like this one is founded on the idea that, given certain historical conditions, even a normal citizen's actions won't make much sense. However, the plausibility issue screws up this promising novel because its telling assumes too much of the reader's moral attitude, not too little. Ostensibly, we are to see the assault as neither good nor bad, and yet it has "noble deed" written all over it: Cops abuse people; cops beat people; kill bad cops. This splinter of a problem gradually becomes a wedge. Of course, you can write any book, have the character of your choice step up to the plate and do any hugely significant deed without preface or explanation and be well within your artistic rights. But why would you want to?

Lewis' answer -- and I'm sure he has one -- is unavailable to readers at present, as is the inspiration for this very strange but ultimately intelligent book. Let's just hope neither one of these elements falls into somebody else's hands before he's had his chance to rope and wrangle them himself.


Sally Eckhoff

Sally Eckhoff lives in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to Salon.

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