March 14, 2014

Poverty, evil stalk a mountain town in ’A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain’

In Adrianne Harun’s novel, the devils stalking a British Columbia logging town seem both supernatural and real. On the one hand, there’s the subset of mean-boned meth dealers. On the other, there’s charismatic newcomers with inexplicable powers and unblemished, milk-white hands, all summoned by an uncle’s folktales?

Drawing distinctions between literary and genre fiction is an easy way to start a feud in a room full of book lovers. But literary and genre lovers alike can find a striking new voice to celebrate in “A Man Came out of a Door in the Mountain.”

Adrianne Harun’s hypnotic debut novel tiptoes through folklore, fantasy and magical realism as she details an insular British Columbia logging town hell-bent on ignoring the devil in their midst.

The novel blooms from the perspective of teenager Leo Kreutzer, the “dumbest smart kid ever.” He’d rather shoot rats at the dump and daydream about his friend Tessa than work through the physics correspondence course his mother has ordered for him.

Leo has the smarts to escape the dead-end town, but he finds it hard to focus on his future in the face of more immediate concerns — say, hiding from the Nagle brothers as they terrorize the town in their orange Matador.

Larger issues loom in his peripheral vision: poverty, hunger, tensions between the aboriginal Canadians and the white residents. Leo doesn’t quite fit in with either side: he’s neither white nor Native but a mix of Kitselas and Haisla, Polish and German, a chimera in a chimerical land.

Leo is also preoccupied with caring for his Uncle Lud, a one-man folklore encyclopedia, and recording Lud’s tales about the devil in his notebooks.

Lud’s stories focus on the stuff of myth, but the devils stalking the town are both supernatural and real. On the one hand, there’s Gerald Flacker and the Nagle brothers, the resident subset of mean-boned meth dealers. On the other, there’s Hana Swann and Kevin Seven, charismatic newcomers with inexplicable powers and unblemished, milk-white hands.

They match characters in Uncle Lud’s tales so precisely, Leo starts to wonder if his stories are summoning them.

Harun hints at the supernatural intrusion through a series of small, uncanny details: a shirt unfolding itself, a thin line of soot on a windowsill. The residents notice these, too, while ignoring a greater evil: the “disposable” aboriginal girls who continue to disappear from the Highway of Tears.

The novel rotates between Leo’s first-person perspective and that of an omniscient narrator, with Uncle Lud’s folk tales peppered throughout. But it’s the folksy cadences of Leo’s voice that drive the novel, coupled with arresting descriptions that paint the natural world as a threat.

The weather “looms like pagan Gods,” and the landscape “pinches us continually,” shaping the snaking switchbacks of the mountain highway.

The forests, Harun writes, are “the stuff of dire fairy tales, dense and black and thick with bears.”

Like fantasy author Neil Gaiman, Harun’s moody prose taps into the innate gothic romance of adolescence, sweeping us — and Leo — along turgid currents of desire and fear. Like realist Ron Rash, Harun seems attuned to the unique rhythms and routines of a particular landscape.

The town and its residents hopelessly intertwine, twin forces influencing and manipulating one another. Houses fall apart along with their inhabitants, and man-made fires torture the woods into choking thickets of ash and smoke.

Leo’s mother lights candles and burns sweet sage in an attempt to save their souls, but Leo senses that “the mountainside itself had a soul that flared and suffered,” one in no less need of salvation.

Harun found success as a short-story writer, and that careful micro-focus on each detail and turn of phrase is apparent here. She seizes each opportunity for image, from the frenetic flits of scavenging birds at the dump to the gliding arc of milk as it fills a glass.

It’s the hallmark of an exacting and attentive stylist, but it can also make the narrative feel claustrophobic at times: when every detail dazzles like a jewel, it becomes difficult for us to know what to pay attention to.

Clarity is crucial to navigate a world as fine-boned and intricately crafted as this one, and readers may at times feel lost.

Still, that’s a small sacrifice to make in the service of a narrative meant to unmoor us from certainty and expectation.

The magnetic newcomers vanish as mysteriously as they arrived, and Harun leaves us to draw our own conclusions about their origin. “A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain” is a tantalizing debut, lush and evocative, that may challenge us to re-think an old adage: The choice between the devil we know and the devil we don’t isn’t so easy.

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