The Fork River Space Project
Since publication of his first novel in 1942, Wright Morris has been moving toward consummation of his hero-witness theme by means of his ordinary but strange characters, his witty, resonant style, and his mind-expanding conceptions. The Fork River Space Project is as quiet and meditative as Fire Sermon (1971) and A Life (1973), his two recent novels, and as eerie and bizarre as the novella War Games (1972) and several stories in Real Losses, Imaginary Gains (1976).
Morris first gave us “The Word from Space” in 1958, delivered by a cosmic mailman. That fantasy begins: “What reassured me was how normal everything looked.” A similar tone is sustained throughout The Fork River Space Project, which is a sort of literary UFO approaching the Science Fiction galaxy. Having explored inner and outer territories, starting from Nebraska, Morris suggested in 1967 that he might take us into orbit. In Orbit examined the varying effects on many different kinds of people of a twister and a kid (who resembles a space man) on a motorcycle, as these two happenings simultaneously hit a small Midwestern town.
In The Fork River Space Project, Dahlberg, a house painter and onetime writer of semi-science fiction, and Harry Lorbeer, a plumber and proprietor of “The Fork River Space Project,” change the lives of Kelcey, an aging writer of “humorous, fantasy-type pieces,” and his young second wife, Alice. This short novel is Kelcey’s witty and lyrical meditation on a constellation of images that revolve around two mysterious and suspenseful questions: Did the population of Fork River, Kansas, vanish in a twister or a spaceship? Are Dahlberg and Harry planning a space trip, and will Alice go with them? Though Kelcey is more interested in mulling over the implications of these questions than in answering them, and though the story elements are filtered through Kelcey’s musings, The Fork River Space Project may prove to be Morris’ most accessible fiction since his first, My Uncle Dudley, and may attract the wider public he has always hoped to reach—and which he deserves.
Near the end of the novel, Kelcey finds Dahlberg meditating nude in the ghost town schoolhouse that houses the space project. “I’ve been giving some thought to it,” Kelcey tells him. Increasingly, his life turns on “speculation.” “How explain it?” he asks, rhetorically. What we have been experiencing is Kelcey’s almost total articulation of his thoughts, as if the novel were a long essay by Loren Eiseley, Morris’ late good friend. We have collaborated with him in fusing thought and feeling through images, body wisdom, intuitions, reasonings, moments of pure being, visions, and, above all, imagination. All those categories of perception and modes of thinking are integrated in Kelcey’s sensibility, his conceptual imagination.
In different ways, Harry and Dahlberg become heroes to Kelcey and Alice, their witnesses. Alice’s response is to become Dahlberg’s lover. Alice is a further refinement of Morris’ wisecracking, audacious woman-as-catalyst, beginning with the Greek in Love Among the Cannibals, continuing with Etoile in Ceremony in Lone Tree, Cynthia in What a Way to Go, and Joy in Fire Sermon. Kelcey discovers Alice and Dahlberg alone: “They were in orbit. They were where everybody wanted to be.” Later, he thinks: “Some people are determined to get into orbit. Was it so unusual that one of them was my wife?” As he approaches the lovers, Alice says to Kelcey: “’You look far away!’ Was I wrong in thinking that she liked that better?” He keeps telling himself “it’s her own life,” not his. He sees “her face tilted upward, as I had often seen it, radiant with expectations”—that he knows he cannot fulfill. Kelcey is older than Alice; she was a young commercial artist when she met him on a summer cruise. Kelcey’s response to Harry and Dahlberg is to transform himself through his imagination. Harry “started me thinking—or should I say seeing? On the mind’s eye, or the balls of the eyes, or wherever it is we see what we imagine, or imagine what we see.” Dahlberg’s father, an early inventor of a space rocket, and Harry’s father, a railroad magnate who opened the West and built Fork River to glorify his wife, passed on to their sons a tendency to blend fact and fiction. Dahlberg wants “to restore awe. . . without awe we diminish, we trivialize, everything we touch.” Kelcey quips, “My heart belongs to Harry,” the visionary. And Kelcey feels “a surge of warm fellow feeling for Dahlberg,” under whose Buster Keaton deadpan, “I see his brain pan twinkling like a constellation.” Dahlberg tells Kelcey, “This is your project as much as it is my project.”
Imagination is Kelcey’s state of mind, in which what he sees is less important than what he imagines. What he hears and sees “boggles the mind” and gives “cause for wonder”—two of many clichés whose original freshness Morris resurrects in lively contexts. Kelcey closes his eyes “to see more, as well as less,” one of several paradoxes that aid perception and energize Kelcey’s rhetoric. His overexcited imagination also produces dreams that reach back to prehistory and project into the space age. He cautions Alice not to look at anything too closely. “The jig is up as soon as” a UFO, for instance, “is identified.” She takes his advice, follows the wisdom of the body, and goes into love orbit with Dahlberg, causing psychological space to expand between herself and Kelcey, to whom she begins to seem like the first visitor from space.
Kelcey achieves the state of awe, but for him “the experience of unearthly, celestial transport is a matter of imagination”; he doubts the astronauts had it, and Morris suggests the experience of Alice and Dahlberg and Harry, in space, or...
(The entire section is 2447 words.)