Although Kotzwinkle is working in a comic mode, with a positive outcome almost guaranteed for the more appealing characters and no permanent harm occurring to even the most ridiculous ones, The Bear Went Over the Mountain is a serious book, similar to the work of the classical satirists whose strategies Kotzwinkle is echoing. His concern for the "dangerous split between us and our animal nature" is his central theme, and it is set up by making Hal Jam and Arthur Bramhall the secret sharers of each other's psychic realm. Along a continuum stretching from what might be called the fully human to the entirely animal, Jam and Bramhall move in opposite directions, but as significant as their apparent contrary motion is their amalgam of attributes. Each creature, part man and part beast, is always a mixture of elements, with a particular facet of the psyche emerging or dominating in response to a complex of occasions—the social, personal, environmental factors which are at play in their lives. Jam is determined to fit into a world he barely knows; Bramhall is so disgusted by that world that he willingly retreats from it, but his regression is fueled by a dawning awareness of sensory powers long dormant and unused. Jam is motivated by the temptations of the wicked, sybaritic city; Bramhall is responding to the call of the wild. Neither character is essentially wrong since both drives are a part of the living creatures that Kotzwinkle is exploring.
This is the key to Kotzwinkle's most persistent query, a daunting philosophical problem throughout the history of civilization on Earth: What does it mean to be human? Without offering any definitive answers, the narrative poses some of the questions that are crucial in an exploration of this issue. Who decides? Who fits their definition? Does humanity depend on the skin (sensory apparatus), on style, on the mind, on the soul? How does a particular culture direct behavior, and what is considered appropriate? Who are the arbiters? Kotzwinkle has been interested in deviations from the main stream from the start of his writing life (most notably in The Fan Man [1974; see separate entry] which practically codified counterculture behavior circa the legendary 1960's) and The Bear Went Over the Mountain continues his presentation of alternative life-patterns, not only in terms of Jam's life in the city but in the description of life in rural Maine where an appealingly idiosyncratic local population seems light years away from the mores of the metropolitan centers on the continent's edges. A thought emerges in the course of the narrative about what happened to the sons and daughters of the sixties toward the end of the century, and whether a retreat from urban corruption resulted in any kind of improvement in people's lives.
Kotzwinkle's examination of what is often called human nature (including the human nature of animals) dominates the novel, but he is also...
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