The Fork River Space Project Summary
by Wright Morris

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The Fork River Space Project Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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The Fork River Space Project is, unlike Ceremony in Lone Tree and The Field of Vision, a story of reconciliation and imaginative triumph. Early in his career, Morris often wrote about characters such as Foley, Proctor, or Boyd, who were at odds with society and frequently engaged their world with open hostility. In the novels written in his later years, however, Morris showed an increased affinity for characters who are at peace rather than at odds with their world. Kelcey, the narrator of The Fork River Space Project, is one such character, and his story of Harry Lorbeer, Lorbeer’s partner Dahlberg, and their search for extraplanetary life illustrates Morris’s firm belief in the regenerative power of the human imagination.

The story of the novel is filtered through the perceptions of Kelcey, who hires two handymen, Dahlberg and Lorbeer, to work on his Kansas house. Made curious by the eccentric work habits of both, Kelcey resolves to find out more about them. He discovers that Dahlberg is a writer of science-fiction stories. In addition, he finds that both spend their weekends in a ghost town named Fork River, where they lead a sect that believes the town to be the future site of a visit from outer space. The basis for such beliefs stems from a mysterious incident that left a huge crater in Fork River. According to legend, the event was caused by an outer-space vehicle that sucked the inhabitants of the town into the heavens. Another, more practical, theory posits that the mysterious formation was caused by a tornado. Dahlberg and Lorbeer, however, know that tornadoes never bore such scars into the earth and for that reason concede the phenomena to be extraterrestrial. Dahlberg, in fact, writes a story, “A Hole in Space,” about the occurrence. Kelcey reads it and is impressed by its new vision of an unexplainable natural event.

What Dahlberg and Lorbeer hope to accomplish through their Sunday gatherings is to convince others that another visitation is possible. They believe, in essence, that if others believe, the mystery is more likely to repeat itself. Therefore, by presenting the facts of the case in an unconventional manner, they evolve a new and fresh perspective that they feel will reintroduce a sense of the mysterious into the event and will have the potential to expand the consciousness of the general populace.

In this incident, and a number of others throughout the book, Morris suggests some of his long-held beliefs about the nature of reality. In Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments, a book of critical commentary, he states that the American obsession with the “real” has had a depressing effect on the imagination. “In assuming we know what is real, and believing that is what we want, we have . . . measurably diminished ’reality,’” creating “more and more of what we know, and what we have,” but “less of what we crave.” In other words, the superficial materialism and relentless scientific fact-finding that dominate modern life have dried up the basic human sense of awe, mystery, and interest in the unknown. Thus, what Morris reveals through Kelcey’s reaction to the Fork River Space Project is that the nature of reality is largely dependent on an imaginative construct that a number of people agree upon.

For some, especially those who look for empirical facts, Dahlberg and Lorbeer would seem to be mad. For others, such as Kelcey, there is something oddly life-enhancing about the enlarged vision these two men provide. Lorbeer and Dahlberg may be eccentric and somewhat lazy, but Kelcey senses that they have found a way to make constructive use of the imagination and are able to create a durable fiction by which to live from the fragmentary facts of their quotidian existence.

The Fork River Space Project, then, is about how mystery creates the effect of wonder and gives the imagination free rein to reformulate the essential facts. “On the mind’s eye, or on the balls of the eyes, or wherever it is,” Kelcey remarks, “we see what we imagine, or imagine what we see.” By that statement, Morris emphasizes the notion that human conceptions of reality are more like fictions than facts, that ideas form conceptions, and that facts are arranged to fit such ideas. At bottom, the mysterious is what truly moves the imagination. When everything is known, the mind simply has no avenue for free play or growth, because the “soaring imagination” has been “leashed and hooded, like a falcon.”


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

With the action of the novel narrated by Kelcey, the work is basically the story of his intellectual growth as a result of his contact with the two men who live near the Fork River Space Project, Harry Lorbeer and O. P. Dahlberg. The novel, then, is about a new way of seeing, which Kelcey adeptly explains in the first lines of the novel: “I owe this [new awareness] to Harry Lorbeer. He started me thinking—or should I say seeing?” Yet this novel is not merely the story of how one man teaches another man to understand life more clearly.

As the novel opens, Kelcey and Alice summon Lorbeer to unstop their bathroom sink. Lorbeer, in turn, introduces the couple to O. P. Dahlberg, who agrees to paint their porch and build a rose trellis.

Dahlberg’s peculiar disregard for time and yet meticulous work habits excite Kelcey’s curiosity to the point that he visits the local library to learn about Fork River, where Dahlberg and Lorbeer live. The town is no longer on the map, but as recently as 1940 it had a population of some seven hundred. Kelcey’s research proves to be serendipitous: The librarian recognizes the name Dahlberg as that of a science-fiction writer and finds one of his books, a collection called A Hole in Space and Other Stories, published in 1962. The author’s photograph confirms that Dahlberg the painter and Dahlberg the erstwhile writer are one and the same.

Without Lorbeer’s or Dahlberg’s knowledge, Kelcey visits Fork River. He finds a virtual ghost town featuring a large, unexplained crater, seemingly scooped out to the bedrock, and an old schoolhouse with a sign labeling the undertaking as the “Fork River Space Project.”

The rest of the novel centers on Kelcey’s increasing fascination with Dahlberg and the “space project,” and with Alice’s infatuation with Dahlberg and his airy dreams. Intent on understanding the meaning of the Fork River Space Project, Kelcey visits the community on a Sunday afternoon to discover, along with a throng of hippies, that in the old schoolhouse, bedecked with abstract paintings, Lorbeer and Dahlberg are giving a show. Featuring the sound track from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the scene effectively simulates a view of the earth from outer space, suggesting that the mysterious crater outside was formed by extraterrestrial beings.

Meanwhile, Alice has become enthralled both with Dahlberg’s dream and with the man himself. The two of them lecture the bemused Kelcey, arguing that since humankind has destroyed the earth’s purity, the survivors must turn to outer space, where they can recapture a sense of awe.

During another visit to Fork River, Kelcey finds Dahlberg seated in a lotus position, unclothed, covered with perspiration, and apparently contemplating the coming of visitors from another planet. He probes Kelcey’s understanding of the idea of the Space Project. Kelcey remains unconvinced, but he comes away from the experience more aware of himself and his world. He is even able to put into perspective his experiences with two eccentrics he had met in Paris years ago, people whom he neither appreciated nor understood prior to his contact with Dahlberg and Lorbeer.

As the novel closes, Kelcey reads a letter from Alice that tells him that she and Dahlberg are running away together. Kelcey returns once more to Fork River and muses to himself about the meaning of his new awareness about living on the planet Earth.