David Guterson's new novel seeps in slowly, like the persistent drip-drip-drip of rain-forest condensation or the beginnings of a bad flu.
Ann Holmes, waiflike girl of 16, a runaway who was oft raped by her mother's druggie boyfriend, wanders deep into the forest in search of chanterelle mushrooms to gather and peddle for food money. Suffering from poor nutrition, allergies (for which she continuously pops pills), loneliness and her period to boot, Ann stops here to eat (chips or a donut), there to masturbate, there to read from her pocket catechism and pray.
Then, in a particularly dank part of the forest, Ann has a vision: "She was brushing dirt from the gills of a mushroom when she noticed a strange light in the forest. Later she described it as a ball of light hovering silently between two trees, also as a bright floating orb about the size of a basketball. It was lit from inside, not from without, not like a mirror, jewel or prism but more like a halogen lightbulb. It didn't waver or wax and wane like a candle and appeared, like a helium balloon, free of gravity, aloft and attached to nothing. A nimbus surrounded it like fog or gauze. She thought that perhaps it revolved in place like a small planet or a moon."
Ann soon comes to believe that her apparition is none other than the Virgin Mary. Mary returns to bring Ann messages -- steer clear of evil and greed, go talk to the local priest, build a church in the forest -- and before long thousands of followers. And the visions of Ann -- or "Our Ann" as her disciples prefer to call her -- prompt people like the local priest struggling with his own (mild) demons, Ann's cynical drifter-grifter friend Carolyn, and others to examine, and discuss, their own notions of spirituality and redemption, religion and sin.
Guterson offers up the forest as the perfect crucible in which to stir together seer and sinner, cleric and skeptic, tourist and tortured soul. All these mortals shrink in the face of its endless cycle of birth and decay. As he puts it, "Most of the pilgrims ... were moved to consider their mortality by the forest's sea-green cathedral light. The trees rose like pillars. Out of the fallen trees grew new trees. A delirious photosynthetic rapture suffused the air of the place. There was so much evidence of decay and birth it was discomfiting and comforting at once. How could this be here and people matter very much? The indications of human smallness and of the great span of God's time -- there they were in everything and who could think about it? Fine shards of fear shot through the atmosphere and pierced the pilgrims in vulnerable places. The message of the woods was simple. You are going to die."
The forest's mortal lessons are something Tom Cross, the ex-logger who is the subject of the novel's parallel plotline, knows all too well. Cross' son, Tommy, was paralyzed by a falling tree, though Cross -- certainly no candidate for father of the year -- claims responsibility for breaking his son's neck. Once something of a pillar of his community, although never a particularly nice one, Cross has seen his life steadily decay since the tree crushed his son's body. His wife has divorced him, his children can't stand him, he's lost his career and most of his self-respect. He's left with hatred and a penchant for violence, which he turns on anyone who crosses his path: His family, the Indian owners of the motel he calls home, the inmates at the prison in which he works as a guard, the bartender he beds one night -- but Tom hates no one quite as much as he hates himself.
As Guterson stops to contemplate good and evil, belief and skepticism, the desires of the flesh and the will of the spirit, Tom's path of devastation leads him -- inevitably -- to Ann. "You believe in the devil?" he asks her in the novel's feverish, combustible climax. "I'm him."
But what does that make Ann? Is she a true seer, as her followers insist, a pure soul and possibly a saint? Or is she -- as the church would have it -- simply a misguided girl who took a few too many magic mushrooms on top of a few too many antihistamines and got a little too carried away with her Hail Marys? Who knows?
The genius of Guterson's book is that the answer, ultimately, doesn't matter. What matters are the questions you ask yourself along the way.
-- Amy Reiter
Our next pick: Edmund White's anachronistic historical novel, "Fanny"