The Thin Mountain Air
Admirers of Paul Horgan’s graceful and compelling art as a storyteller should rejoice. He has brilliantly ended the seven-year silence which followed his much acclaimed novel, Whitewater. As the third novel in the “Richard” series, which began with Things As They Are and Everything To Live For, The Thin Mountain Air is a totally absorbing, marvelously crafted work of fiction. As always in Horgan’s work there are the richly realized ingredients of characterization, setting, and mood. Moreover, his plots have a strength which grows out of their subtle believability. Horgan never works to impress readers with shocking innovations; instead, he demonstrates solid mastery of the conventions of novelistic form. He writes within the same genteel structure as James Gould Cozzens or John Marquand; he is an unabashedly traditional teller of stories. His characters are real, his settings are recognizable; to read him is like looking at the hauntingly pictorial paintings of Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, or Peter Hurd. He uses symbols, and he makes them work without hitting us over the head with them. He loves the physical world in which he places characters, and he describes it with such care and precision that we are there, too.
Horgan also loves and is fascinated by people, and because of this he creates truly memorable characters, some of whom we admire and would love to have in our own lives, and some of whom we fear, and would turn from in terror if we met them. Impressively, he is able to create both heroic and villainous figures equally well, balancing them in their humanity, and somehow to make us feel compassion for them all. It is a large, generous view of the foibles and beauties of humankind. Horgan has love for, and belief in, the human creature. His people are capable of nobility as well as shame. Thus Horgan seems at times charmingly out of step with most contemporary writers of fiction. To read him, however, is not an escape from awful realities, but a confrontation of reality from a stance that is armed through education, psychological and emotional insight, and reliance upon tradition. Horgan writes from a solid base of values which will strike many readers today as oldfashioned. The Thin Mountain Air builds a beautiful and convincing case for the resumption of those old-fashioned values. Realistically and at the same time encouragingly, he shows those virtues as losing many battles but winning the most important of the wars in the vicious conflict that life so often becomes. His characters have love and dignity; they have concern for others, and they exercise their intelligence and judgment to the best ends possible. Thus, at the end of The Thin Mountain Air, one has a feeling of affirmation, a kind of heightening of consciousness of the splendor of being alive, being a part of the enactment of a grand drama.
Taking place in the year he was twenty years old, The Thin Mountain Air is a retrospective narration by the adult Richard many years after the events took place in the 1920’s. The grown man tells us he is writing from notes and journal entries he made at the time. He suggests, too, how though the passage of time may have softened the edges of some memories, it has enhanced the poignance, painful and otherwise, of others. Looking back, he spares no one among his friends, or in his family, in his honest analysis of their actions. He is equally unsparing of himself. Along the way, young Richard confronts many, comes to understand most, and even to embrace some human weaknesses. Thus, the novel’s major theme is advanced. In its largest sense, The Thin Mountain Air is about Richard’s journey toward gaining compassion, and achieving true maturity. Richard learns to love, even when love is not easy, either to give or to accept. Indeed, another of the novel’s large concerns is the exploration of the many forms of love. In the space of one year he sees true love, corrupted love, misplaced love, and lust.
In his late teens, Richard lives a comfortable, cultured, and somewhat protected life. He loves the Upstate New York town in which he lives. He likes school and his studies. He jokes easily with his well-to-do, Irish politician father. Loved and encouraged by his parents, he feels close to them. Their love of him, and of each other, he accepts with gratitude but youthful lack of understanding. As he grows older, he learns tragically of another form love may take. Beginning blindly to push borders beyond himself, he falls in love with the idea of a young couple of lovers he observes living together aboard an old boat in the harbor. Richard observes them, fantasizes about them, in his mind joins them. In his imagination, theirs is a pure love like his mother’s and father’s. He is jolted back to his essential aloneness when he reads of the nameless couple’s death by a fire aboard the old ship. Only later does...
(The entire section is 2011 words.)