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Sunday, March 17, 2002

WRITING TO HER HEART'S CONTENT

Copyright © 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

 

 

 

NORTH PARSONSFIELD – "Sounds like I've finally been beaten down by the system."

That's how Carolyn Chute describes her recent decision to abandon her 10-year-old typewriter and learn to use a computer. Her characteristic laugh makes you think she relishes the irony of this turn of events. But the comment and the laugh disguise – and reveal – a fear that has been building in Chute for some time now.

Maine's most colorful and, some would argue, most brilliant author is terrified that her popularity has run its course and that she will never be published again. In her darker moments, she fears she will end up like the most desperate and downtrodden of the characters she has written about for the past two decades.

"We were very poor before 'Beans.' We were wearing rags," says Chute of the years before her successful first novel, "The Beans of Egypt, Maine," was published in 1984. "Now, we're slowly sliding back to that."

In the 17 years since Chute's first novel, "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" gained her comparisons to Steinbeck and Faulkner, Chute has become an earnest, outspoken advocate for the working poor, whose lives she depicts so vividly in her novels. Lately, in part because of the political plot of her last book, her reputation has suffered to the point where she feels it is making it difficult to get her new book into print.

"It really matters what reviewers think of your books these days," says Chute, who has compared the national media to the geese she used to own. "Once one starts honking, they all do."

Called "The School on Heart's Content Road," Chute's would-be-fifth novel is a 1,600 page, triple-spaced manuscript of epic proportions, with a community full of characters and several story lines running through it. Its main subject is a self-sufficient community in rural Maine led by a landowner with a number of wives who gets framed by FBI agents hellbent on breaking up the community.

Since she submitted her first draft to her publisher in 1998, she has been told it needs to be cut, needs to be less political and needs to delve more into the lives of the female characters. More than anything, though, Chute thinks her publisher is afraid it will be panned by reviewers the way her last book, "Snow Man," was in 1999.

"Snow Man" was criticized by reviewers who thought the idea of a political assassin being taken in by the mother and the wife of the assassin's next intended victim was an implausible plot twist (even if the assassin's prowess in the bedroom was legendary). Many reviewers said her characters were stereotypes, without motivations that made sense. The most positive reviews called the book "oddly compelling" and "flawed, but fascinating."

Chute's supporters say it simply was the wrong time for a book about a desperate man in economic turmoil. The late 1990s, after all, were a time of economic prosperity. Who wanted to think about the fact that a segment of the population was being left out?

"If a book is controversial, it doesn't have anything to do with the book. It's where the world is at the moment," says Carole Taylor, a professor of English at Bates College. Taylor teaches a course called Dissenting Traditions in American Literature and she is editing a collection of critical essays about Chute's work that will be published soon. "Carolyn is very in your face. There's a satiric edge to her work. Her characters are symbolic."

Chute's agent agrees that reviewers just didn't get it.

" 'Snow Man' was about a guy with no power and no way out. He represents a wild, wounded animal at his wit's end, taken in by these two women," says Jane Gelfman, who has been Chute's agent since 1984. "Some reviewers said she was recommending assassination as a course of action, which is ridiculous."

Chute (she pronounces it choot) admits that the characters – and the situations – in her novels have become more openly disenchanted with big government and big business over time. But Chute says reviewers have always misunderstood her motives.

" 'Beans' was popular because it came off as a scornful view of the working class," she says. "With 'Snow Man,' it became plain to reviewers that I was really saying, 'This is our world.' . . . As soon as they figured out what I was really writing about, it was over."

Chute says the only message she was trying to convey in "Snow Man" was that if we could lock members of the upper class in a room with members of the poor and working class, we would see how alike all people are – and understand that it is "the system," not what's in people's hearts, that causes corruption.

" 'Snow Man' was my feeling about people discovering their humanity when they set the system aside," says Chute as she leans forward in her rocking chair, a pile of sewing to be tended to on her left and two of her dogs sprawled out on rocking chairs to her right. "I used to think reviewers criticized your writing style. I didn't know they could criticize your life view if they think your life view sucks."

Chute's life view, which she calls "no-wing" because it is neither left-wing nor right-wing, has been shaped by her experiences over the past 53 years. She grew up working class, but comfortable, in Cape Elizabeth in the early 1950s, when much of the town was still farmland and property values hadn't yet soared with the influx of people "from away."

Chute dropped out of high school at the age of 16, got married and had a daughter. She divorced in the mid-1970s and worked in a chicken factory and then wrote as a correspondent for The Portland Evening Express. In the mid-1970s, she met Michael Chute, who bore a remarkable resemblance to the portrait of a man she'd painted from her imagination. Michael Chute was a high school graduate from Parsonsfield who somehow got through school without learning to read. He worked in a junkyard, sold firewood and did snowplowing work. They married in 1978.

If any one incident served to radicalize Chute, it was the death in 1982 of their newborn son, Reuben. Chute blames his being stillborn on the fact that she and Michael had no health insurance. She says the hospital would not admit her during her early labor – even though the baby was a month overdue and she had a temperature of 104 degrees.

"Neighbors of mine with lower back pain and good insurance were admitted instantly to have their babies," she wrote in a letter to the Maine State Legislature's committee on banking and insurance in April 2001 when she testified about the need for universal health care. "My baby was struggling to be born. . . . They will let you in for quickie stuff. But not complicated costly stuff."

Chute had written stories since she was 8 years old. After Reuben's death, she began to fill every spare minute with her writing. A professor at the University of Southern Maine, Ken Rosen, suggested she submit some short stories to literary magazines. They were received with great enthusiasm. In early 1984, her story, "Ollie, oh . . ." was included in an anthology of Best Short Stories of 1983.

"Beans of Egypt, Maine" followed soon after that. It is an episodic novel about Earlene Pomerleau, a poor girl who marries into the incorrigible Bean clan. It is a disturbing book with repulsive characters who commit violent acts and good people driven to madness, and reviewers called it a compelling portrait of the despair and anger that results from generations of rural poverty. Chute's spare but lyrical prose and earthy characters were compared to Faulkner and Steinbeck.

Chute's next book, "Letorneau's Used Auto Parts," was a more political saga about townspeople who can no longer afford to live in their home town. In one scene, the local code enforcement officer was burned in effigy by angry residents. Reviewers gushed over Chute's powerful, dream-like prose that captured the comic-tragic essence of her working class characters, as well as the meditative state in which Chute writes her books. The novel won a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation award.

Chute, by then, was a celebrity in Maine and Manhattan. She appeared on TV and did book signings all over the country. She regularly worked and/or lectured at the McDowell Colony in Vermont and the Stonecoast Writing Conference here in Maine.

But while Chute has always been comfortable talking to anyone about writing – or anything else for that matter – her fame did not change her or her lifestyle. She still dressed in workboots and full, denim skirts with long johns underneath with her frizzy, honey-colored hair pulled back with a bandanna. When she taught a fiction course at the University of New Hampshire in the 1980s, she brought her notes to class in a cereal box and clamped pages of her work together with clothes pins.

She bought the 17 acres where she and Michael built their roomy, two-story house in Parsonsfield with her earnings from "Beans of Egypt." She also helped out her daughter, who is 38 and living in Biddeford. She and Michael have been able – until recently – to support themselves with the royalties and advances from her other books because they – and their three Scottish terriers – live so simply. The floors and walls of their house are rough wood and the view from the wall of windows in the living room is uncluttered by curtains. They have a row of wooden rockers instead of sofas and an immaculate outhouse instead of indoor plumbing.

Things started to change for Chute, though, in the late 1980s as she began to use her popularity as a bully-pulpit for her political views. Chute garnered headlines in the late '80s and early '90s for her protests of what she considered corporate wrongdoing in Maine. She was almost arrested outside Southworth Systems in Westbrook in 1992 when she picketed – all by herself – to protest layoffs there.

"They wanted me arrested for jumping on this truck, but the police lady said she thought I was courageous," Chute recalls.

She and Michael earned more headlines when they started the Second Maine Militia in 1995, a place for gun-toting, working class folks to get together, gab and plan rallies and protests against corporate America and the government that they believe enables corporations to thrive at the expense of the poor.

Last fall, Chute announced, as a joke, she says, that she was running for governor as a write-in candidate. The media covered her announcement, though, and now she plans on conducting a campaign via public access television as a satire on the state of politics today.

She may not be a serious candidate, but she's an intriguing one. The rage at the root of her message is hidden behind a warm, outgoing and self-deprecating personality.

"She cannot appear anywhere without totally winning over her audience," says Taylor, who has had Chute speak in her classes at Bates. "She's honest and willing to be vulnerable. That's probably why her writing is so powerful."

Though Chute does not believe her politics have compromised the quality of her writing, she knows that running for governor, writing her "Revolutionary Abby" columns for an alternative paper and being point person for the Second Maine Militia make it hard for her to get into that meditative state she needs to produce her work.

But she hasn't given up her quest to get "The School on Heart's Content Road" published. As soon as she learns to use the new computer, she'll be sending another revision to her publisher, she says.

The computer, which lurks in the second-floor office in her home, was loaned to her by the alternative weekly, Maine Commons, as a replacement for the 10-year-old electric typewriter that was getting too hard to fix. Chute gave in to the idea of learning this latest piece of technology, which she has named "J.Edgar," to save money on paper and make her more efficient.

But a computer seems like a luxury when you don't have the money to pay your phone bill. Michael is on disability and can no longer do the manual work that helped support them. This month, she says, she will have to decide whether to buy food or pay her mortgage. Soon, she fears that her Second Maine Militia address ("P.O. Box 100, Parsonsfield, No Phone, No Fax, No Paved Road") may be the only way to find her.

"I know I laugh a lot, but it's terrifying to me. If it turns around, I'll be surprised," she says. " I just don't know what else I could do besides writing."

Still, she says she can't compromise her writing principles just to get published.

"If it's the wrong word or a boring section, that's one thing," she says of the need to revise. "But I see no reason for anything to come out for political reasons. I'm not making political statements. I'm just saying what the people are experiencing."

Taylor at Bates has read Chute's latest manuscript. She thinks it will be published eventually.

"The notion that great books can't be political is simply crazy," says Taylor. "She will be a very significant part of a canon of literature, working-class literature, that is being suppressed right now."

Chute's agent is surprisingly hopeful. Chute's too brilliant a writer to keep out of print, she says. She thinks the economic downturn and the Enron scandal are making it safe to start questioning things again.

"Read the newspapers and you'll see that the corporations are too much in control," Gelfman says. "The politics of her work are not out of synch with what many people in this country are feeling."

Staff Writer Joanne Lannin can be contacted at 791-6650 or at:

jlannin@pressherald.com


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