We’re all familiar with the author archetype, wherein a great writer is squeezed like a lemon — usually by the movies — into a sour but user-friendly cliché: the reclusive J. D. Salinger–type, appearing in both Field of Dreams and the more recent Finding Forrester, the tipsy Faulkner effete (Barton Fink), the restless, sex-stuffed Bacchanalians (Henry & June), and the hopelessly romantic Bard (Shakespeare in Love). Think of them as cinematic shorthand in an age that likes its sentences short and punchy. Out of ego, eccentricity or concern for the bottom line, they (or, in some cases, their publishers) happily cultivate such spurious images in the spirit of the modern assumption that larger-than-life works flow only from larger-than-life pens.
Now enter Carolyn Chute, fifty-three, arguably Maine’s most celebrated, reviled and enigmatic literary export.
“Chute, as in chickadee,” she giggles, slowly creaking in her favorite living-room rocker, her favorite AK-47 within reach to her left. She is a frumpy and patchwork presence, her dusty blonde curls caught up in a red bandana, her legs protected by blue cotton longjohns, her hands stained with pine tar. “And Carolyn with a Y,” she continues in her jerky, stop-and-start drawl, “as in yahoo or yeoman, yokel or yoke.” Also to her left is Chute’s husband of twenty-three years, Michael, an illiterate graveyard worker who pads around their North Parsonsfield home quiet as a cat, his face covered by a graying billygoat beard and his eyes by a black floppy hat. Given the chance, either of them would prefer to talk politics — the brittle, paranoid kind — and the wifely Chute seems most at ease when holding forth on what she has called “the Great Father, the Pharaoh, the big sucking quenchless Corporate Grid-upon-Grid TUMOR.”
“I don’t trust anybody,” she says, and considering she is the self-anointed “Secretary of Offense for the 2nd Maine Militia and fighter of GIANT COMMIE COMPANIES during TWO Centuries,” one is tempted to believe her.
What she does seem to trust, however, is her own instinct to fashion herself — by way of such working-class classics as The Beans of Egypt, Maine; Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts; and Merry Men — into her very own arch author-type: the word-wielding and gun-toting defender of the down and out. That she doesn’t take herself too seriously is implicit in the hand-painted sign above her head: “This is a proud gun-free home.” (All in all, fourteen firearms are in sight, many of them Russian-made.) That none of the rest of us should take her seriously, either, seems an easy leap, especially now that she is announcing her bid to be the next governor of Maine.
“I think [politics] is a joke and that’s why we should make a joke of it,” she says, explaining her decision to encourage friends to write her name in come the next election.
But making a joke out of Carolyn Chute, her politics and her prose, and the way that she wraps herself so defiantly in the grubby, working-class mythos of Maine — well, that might be a little too easy.
RANTS, RAVES, AND REFLECTIONS
I arrive self-conscious about my fuel-efficient little Honda (beep beep!) having read of her distaste for yuppies in their “self-righteously small cars.” The hand-drawn map to her place, variously colored and on two sides of a sheet of typing paper, is other-worldly and filled with “big old places” and a “cemetery with about forty bodies” (this is the same cemetery where Michael works and at first glance seems to have at least a hundred headstones, causing one to wonder). In fact, if it hadn’t have been for the map, I never would have guessed that the slight patch of dirt off the side of the blacktop was her road — not so much a road as an indentation into the woods, where her house hides from view. A clothesline with several black-markered notes hangs across the way, encouraging friends and acquaintances, even Bruce Springsteen, to scram. She’s working. However, a dangling business-sized envelope has my name on it. Inside is a virtual pre-approval voucher for $27,600 from Toyota to be used toward the purchase of a new or pre-owned car. On the other side, it reads “Proceed,” with a smiley face.
Concerned that the interview might not go well, Chute had mailed me several self-interviews, pages and pages of material — rants, raves, and reflections — designed to familiarize me with her politics and worldview. The dominant theme was the plight of the poor; hot-button issues like abortion and homophobia are, according to her, simply mainstream diversions from the more prickly issue of class division. “Most of us Mainers are a thieved-upon ruined people,” Chute writes, “stripped of our culture and life-saving skills, stripped of our land. We are eaten up by heartache and stress and shame.” For nearly every furious burst of all-caps denunciation, she pens a passage such as that one, both softly eloquent and provocative.
And this is the kind of question it provokes: Would most Mainers agree with her? I suspect not, but that’s the confounding part of Chute’s advocacy: She speaks for a group that otherwise doesn’t have a voice. And when she does speak, to non-members, anyway, her comments can be both outrageous and enticing.
“Do you read much fiction?” I want to know.
“No,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’m always reading something, though. Right now I’m reading Gentile Revolution Technofascist Manifesto by Thomas Naylor, the economist … It’s so depressing when you read it, but at the same time, if you notice these things yourself, you feel good because you’re not alone.”
“Kinda like reading your books.”
“Yeah. It’s like beef jerky, you know. They either love ’em or hate ’em.”
Which is true. The critics adored her debut, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, in 1985, while subsequent reaction was decidedly mixed. The New York Times called her third novel, Merry Men, “bad,” while also naming it a notable book of the year for 1994. The paper described her latest work, Snow Man, as “absurd and rather ugly.” The Houston Chronicle thought it “plainly sophomoric,” while a reviewer in Cleveland labeled it “one of the worst books I’ve ever read.” Meanwhile, here in Maine, I’ve personally encountered both strong enthusiasm for her work and the sense — especially among those who prefer lobster to jerky — that Carolyn Chute is not something you discuss in polite company.
Chute chalks it up to the sort of people she writes about. “The only time they [the literary elite] write about working class people, it’s, ‘My father used to beat me and finally I escaped and got a good education and became a yuppie.’ That’s the only time … It’s always about finally becoming a consumer. ‘We’re so lucky now!’”
Perhaps what has raised eyebrows most is the fact that she doesn’t condemn her characters — a motley group who bum and breed in Maine’s bucolic underbelly — or even keep them at an ironic distance. She celebrates them. Whether it’s the Beans (“If it runs, a Bean will shoot it! If it falls, a Bean will eat it!”) or Snow Man’s Robert Drummond, a Maine militia member who executes a U.S. senator before bedding another senator’s wife and daughter, Chute’s writing demands, if not always receives, a reader’s sympathy.
“[My books] have made the professional-class people in New York very mad because they said things in some of the reviews like, ‘She sounds like she’s proud to be working class. She doesn’t want to be like us. What’s the matter with her?’” Chute says. “In fact, there was one reviewer of Beans in the New York Times who kind of caught some of that. She was sharp … I thought she was really on to something the way she kept going, ‘Chute’s nuts.’”
She giggles again.
“Well, I mean she was really on to something because it was so different from her thinking.”
‘WELL, I’M THE AUTHOR!’
What Carolyn Chute is really on to is this idea that her novels are a bridge — a rickety and not always confidence-inspiring bridge — between middle-class Maine and the other Maine, the Maine she grew up in. It’s an impoverished Maine.
You neutralize poverty “by keeping the focus on the characteristics of poor people rather than on the economy, politics, and society more broadly construed,” argues historian Alice O’Connor in a recent New York Times piece. And this is exactly what’s got Chute yipped up the day that we talk. She complains that readers and especially critics have been too quick to find incest in Beans. There was the one incident, sure, she maintains. But that was it. She recalls a social worker approaching her at a reading and telling her that her denial of this central fact about her novel is probably the result of abuse as a child. “I mean, there was even a Rhodes scholar,” Chutes adds, her voice quick and emotional, “and he told me what the book meant, and I told him it didn’t, and he said, ‘Well, I’m a Rhodes scholar.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m the author!’ And he didn’t even pronounce my name right.”
She was concerned enough about the misreading to take the unusual step of composing a postscript for a 1995 reprinting of Beans. In it she writes: “I often wonder if so many reviewers hadn’t misinterpreted Beans as a book on incest, would anybody have bothered to pick up the book at all? Aren’t the lives of ordinary people, stressed to breaking point by the crumbling of America’s big dream, interesting enough?”
It may seem odd for a woman who so quickly and joyfully brandishes her Russian-made assault rifle to wonder about the establishment’s skepticism toward her. But if nothing else, Chute has come by her beliefs and her characters honestly. “I have lived poverty,” she once remarked. “I didn’t choose it. No one would choose humiliation, pain, and rage.”
Instead, she chose Beans.
“When I finished the book, I’d just lost my kid,” she remembers. “I couldn’t get into the hospital because I didn’t have any health insurance and they treated us like dirt. I was a month overdue. I had a 104 temperature and the baby is starved because its umbilical cord is shrunk away. And the police had to fight with them to let me in.”
Chute, a mother at sixteen and grandmother at thirty-seven, was eventually admitted. “But then as we go to leave the hospital, they go, ‘How you gonna pay for this?’ So they kill our kid and we’re supposed to pay for it. And the lady goes, ‘Well, I certainly hope you don’t do this again!’”
THE ULTIMATE WHITE-TRASH NOVEL
This is exactly the sort of judgment that Beans and her other novels are angrily rebelling against. It’s a rebellion, however, that seems to have failed. Instead of inspiring class-consciousness, it has inspired Gen X irony, as in the case of rock stars Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, who christened their baby Frances Bean because, in the Bill and Ted–ish words of Spin magazine, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine is, like, the ultimate white-trash novel.”
Chute’s response to all this has been to retreat from the more complicated world of novel-making into the black and white of her political ideology. Well, maybe not black and white. That’s race politics, a subject she’s not particularly interested in (Chute maintains, plausibly, that we’re all xenophobic — it’s human nature — and she leaves it at that). Call it instead “up and down” politics, as in the words of assassin Robert Drummond in Snow Man: “You’re either up or you’re down. That’s all there is to it. OK?” It’s a politics not ideally suited to winning over the suspicious or even the sympathetic. Snow Man was one of the worst novels I have ever read, as well. But if Maine’s newest gubernatorial candidate cares, she isn’t letting on.
“Snow Man is the way people are,” she insists. “The people I know are flippin’ out. They might not end up killing anyone, but they might end up killing themselves. They are hurtin’ really bad. And some people say that’s political. Well, that’s too bad. That’s the way it is. That’s the way we are now.”
Then she giggles.
A version of this profile originally appeared in Maine Times in June 2001.