The ranks of American mythic novelists have been enriched by the addition of Philip Kimball’s packed and multidimensional novel, Harvesting Ballads. Operating on many different levels simultaneously, Kimball’s first published novel is at once comic, realistic, mythic, epic. Set mostly in contemporary rural Oklahoma and the Central and Northern Great Plains, it is a quest—for identity, for community, for love—and an elegy for a way of life and a people created by one diaspora and dispossessed during another. The book’s complexity and finish are eloquent testimony to the seriousness and intelligence that lie behind it.
The novel opens in 1959 in a tavern in Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, where Sorry, the central figure in the story, and his buddy, Hank, are drinking beer and waiting for work in the harvest to begin again. Sorry thinks that he is ready to commence his life, confident in his knowledge and abilities but unsure of his purpose or direction, having recently been graduated from high school as salutatorian of his class and knowing how to shoot snooker. Sorry thinks that he has completed his education, but his real education begins when he gets into a “friendly game” of snooker with Sapulpa Slim, an old man with “weak eyes.” Sorry thinks that he is going to “hustle” Sapulpa Slim but discovers—too late—that he has been hustled instead. He runs out on the game and a $250 bet and escapes to the prairie and into a series of adventures that serve to bring him to a deep—and unhappy—awareness of who he is not. The novel closes ten years later, with Sorry looking up Sapulpa Slim to pay off the bet, wiser from his adventures, an outcast now who wants to “shoot a little snooker” to find meaning and, perhaps, salvation within the ordered rituals of the game. In the nearly four-hundred pages which lie between these two scenes, Philip Kimball presents a sweeping picture—notable for its solidity of specification and its accuracy—of farm, tavern, and Cherokee tribal life in Oklahoma, with excursions into the rest of the Great Plains and its peoples. The narrative—anything but straightforward—comprises a series of stories arranged in a seemingly random but actually quite artful order which replicates the means by which community members learn and create their community.
Kimball structures his fiction according to a number of philosophical positions. He subtly interweaves their consequences in a style deliberately laconic and oral in the tradition of the short-grass prairie communities in Oklahoma and Kansas where Kimball grew up. Perhaps chief among these “structural ideas,” as he calls them, is the belief that the universe is chaotic. In it, life forms, themselves a limited number of repeated patterns created by chance, create further patterns that tend to be repeated. In one passage of crucial importance, Sorry discourses on random chance and chaos in the universe, expressing a position that operates structurally and thematically in the novel:Take that truck driver over there eating his hot roast beef sandwich. Think of the mind-boggling coincidences, the string of haphazard events that led to our being in this road-side greasy spoon at the same time. Any slight change in any of the chain and we wouldn’t be here together. If he would have overslept, if I hadn’t stopped for gas five miles back, if his parents hadn’t moved from Arkansas when he was six because the house burned down when the dog knocked over the kerosene lamp chasing the cat they’d found half drowned in a gunnysack, if you hadn’t sent in your name to the computer, if I hadn’t started shooting snooker with Sapulpa Slim, if my mother hadn’t had a flat near El Reno, Oklahoma, or the man from whose truck the nail had fallen’s mother hadn’t decided to marry Jake instead of Manard, if Jakes’s great-great-grandmother would have had a headache that night. It’s a goddam miracle our path happens to cross with that truck driver, and his crosses with the cow he’s eating now. Except we don’t think anything of it. Once the miracle happens, it’s just another ordinary day.
Within this chaotic universe, the artist has a number of formal options to order and focus the chaos. Kimball focuses his plot by referring closely to the Celtic medieval romance Tristan and Isolde by Gottfried von Strassburg. This thirteenth-century tale of the destructive consequences of illicit love for the communities in which it occurs provides most of the main characters and the general shape of the plot. Sorry is a clever translation of Tristan, in name, parentage, birth, love, and life. His uncle, Marcus Baldwin, is the counterpart of King Mark of Cornwall; the two Isadoras with whom Sorry is romantically linked echo Isolde and Yesult of the White Hands; Mackay, the dwarf, echoes Frocin; and so on. It is important to note that a response to Kimball’s novel does not depend upon a close familiarity with Gottfried’s romance, but such an understanding certainly enriches that response in the same way that familiarity with Homer’s Odyssey enhances one’s reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Another structural idea, integral to Kimball’s chosen style, is that human communities exist and have identity and form, meaning and function, only as they create themselves through ritual, chief among which are the traditions of storytelling and games. Harvesting Ballads comprises dozens of individual stories told from multiple, shifting narrative points of view, ranging from historical and geological textbook passages to intensely first-person accounts. Beginning geologically with the formation of the Great Plains, the novel...
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