The Wood Demons

Wilderness, darkness, and drink in a debut novel

Some three decades before the slave-holding states of the South formed their Confederacy, a rugged swath of New Hampshire calling itself the Republic of Indian Stream seceded from the United States. Its experiment in independence, which lasted for three years, provides the setting for the challenging blend of experimental prose and historical fiction in Quinnehtukqut, Joshua Harmon's debut novel.

"Lake Connecticut was to us but the jumping-off place whence we proposed to dive into a remoter world of mystery," says one character about the body of water near the Canadian border for which the novel is named. Harmon uses four interlocking narratives—centered loosely on the experiences of a young woman with dreams beyond farm life—to explore the untamed land's fledgling independence and its subsequent emergence, in the 20th century, as the destitute back country of a rapidly modernizing nation.

In the opening chapter, a bloodthirsty stranger searches for gold while terrorizing the citizenry; in another, a wealthy Massachusetts family settles into uneasy coexistence with its suspicious neighbors. The most daring section of the novel pays tribute to the experimental poet John Ashbery with a prose poem about a woman whose homestead is threatened by the construction of a dam. But neither carpetbaggers nor castaways find solace in Indian Stream, which ultimately comes to represent a "corner of the world [where] there is nothing but wilderness and darkness and drink."

While Harmon's treatment of the land is unimpeachable, the writing in Quinnehtukqut-—replete with rambling stream-of-consciousness and disjointed description-—too closely mirrors the bewildering density of the New Hampshire woods. Harmon, who regularly advocates for nonlinear fiction on his blog, concerns himself with formal innovation at the expense of a coherent narrative. William Faulkner, an obvious inspiration for this novel, explored the South's troubled history through a meticulous conception of Yoknapatawpha County, but he brought readers into his world before dazzling them with literary prowess. There is no shortage of bravura in Harmon's prose, but he seems to forget that a novel cannot subsist on avant-gardism alone.

 
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