Entertainment Weekly has called Donald Harington “America’s Greatest Unknown Novelist.” Of course, here in Arkansas, where he was born and raised and continues to reside, he’s long been a favorite son. The author of 13 books, Harington grew up in Little Rock, but spent most summers with his grandparents in the Ozarks. Many of his novels center on the fictional Ozark town of Stay More, a creation Believer magazine has described as “an Arcadian memory-world, inaccessible but eternal: hard to find, but harder to leave.”
Harington, professor of art history at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, has won the Robert Penn Warren Award, the Porter Prize, the Heasley Prize and the Arkansas Fiction Award of the Arkansas Library Association. He’s been inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame and won the inaugural Oxford American award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature.
Harrington will participate in the Arkansas Literary Festival’s “Arkansas Fiction III” panel at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 6.
Below, we’re pleased to present an advance excerpt of the author’s 14th book, “Farther Along,” a novel that tracks a chief curator of a museum devoted to the vanished American past who decides he, too, wants to vanish. Armed with a book on the life and culture of a vanished tribe of Indians known as Bluff-Dwellers, he takes up residence in the wilds of the Ozark Mountains with only a dog for company. “Farther Along” will be released in May by Toby Press.
The tissue or, not to mince the issue, toilet paper, is the sole luxury I permit myself, and that sparingly, using scarcely more at the nether aperture than at the higher, the bung than the maw, packing on my back, each semi-annual seven-mile hike back from the village, as many rolls as I can carry, and they being so downy light I can bear a half-year’s supply, six rolls to a cellophane package, twelve packages bound and tied and piled high above my shoulders in a heap like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s load, although some loafers along the road are bound and obliged to make a crack or two I overhear: “That feller shore must bowel off ever hour on the hour,” or “Naw, it’s a durn sight cheaper than cigarette papers.” They don’t know me, nor do they realize that I use almost as much of the tissue at one opening as at the other. Children point and giggle, and call me The Giasticutus, which, I have learned, is a huge mythical bird of prey who carries off large articles on its back — when I hear that, I obligingly flap my elbows like wings and wish I could fly. Dogs bark, or they bark at least once, and if they bark twice it is tentative, hesitant — Ralph? — for my own dog has begun snarling at them in a low frequency foreign and mythical to them, because they, all of them, are hounds, blue tick, black and tan, redbone and mixed glut of mutts, and my dog is purebred German Shepherd, the only one of that breed, as far as I know, in the entire county. He has a name which I did not give to him, or, rather, which I gave to him out of remembrance of a friend’s dog of the same breed and name, long ago it seems, a thoroughly trite and stupefyingly common name which, having dubbed him with, I have rarely spoken. He is black and gray. I am tanned and gray, but on the winter trip of the semi-annual hikes to town, January 18th, my birthday (the summer trip is made July 18th), we both of us are sometimes all white with snow on the way in and back, snow camouflaging the tissue, and there are no loafers or children or dogs along the way to quip or point or bark.
My comb, around which I fold the tissue, is clean, because I rarely use it, usually twice a year, before going to town. As a result, I still have a full head of hair, albeit fast graying, whereas I had expected by this age — 43 — to have acquired my father’s smooth baldness of the fore crown. I am convinced that baldness comes from daily combing. A comb is meant for playing and I daily play mine, although the dog doesn’t appreciate it and leaves our bluff cavern to hide in the woods far out of earshot until I’m finished. I sit while playing; perhaps I sit altogether too much, which may account for my haemorrhoids, which in turn may account for half of my indulgence in toilet paper, since I cannot use leaves, sticks, moss, corncobs, and have no newspapers, let alone Sears or Wards catalogs, but it has been my routine, ever since I came here six years ago, to work one day out of the week and rest the other six, which is turning it around on God. I don’t recall what Thoreau’s habits were. But unlike him, I’m not trying to prove anything, or, if I once was, whatever it was, whenever, it has been proved long since in these six long years.
The valley we (and by “we” I am merely assuming, perhaps wrongly, that the dog has some appreciation for views) can see below us, here, far down below us with range after range of forested mountain rising beyond, is that of the headwaters of a wilderness river whose lower rapids are mobbed by canoeists and john-boaters but whose upper turnings are used only by fish and other aquatic life. There is a town down there, an abandoned village, lifeless. It did not produce, as far as I know, carved chests or other vernacular furniture, save perhaps a spindle-backed or ladder-backed chair with seats of local cane or rough woven oak splits. A crude dirt road thrashes about through the valley, but while I (we) can see several long squirms of that road from our cavern, I have never been able to spot the cavern from the road, although I (we) have walked or wambled the road often, and I have gazed up to run my eye carefully along the mountain’s cliff ridges and stony escarpments in search of the dark mouth of my ledge shelter. Nor can I see any occupied dwellings from my bluff-home, and very few from the road. My nearest known neighbor is three miles away down in the valley, and I do not know him well, although he claims we are distant cousins and indeed his family name is identical to my mother’s maiden name. Farther along that fluttering road is a cemetery where she is buried, and her father and mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts, first cousins and last cousins, are buried. And mine. I was 17 when I attended her funeral, my first visit to this country until the present time.
Despite those family ties, and despite too having made my bluff home here for six years, I have yet to feel any deep roots in this country. I know every steep slope and hollow of this mountain like the palm of my hand, but unfortunately if I closed my eyes I could not begin to describe the hollow of my hand, and I have no faith in palmistry. I have learned the difference between a Black Gum tree and a Sweet Gum tree … but to what avail? The forest understory — my unlimited lawn — is a fairyland of wildflowers, but I have barely bothered to distinguish the Trillium from the May Apple. I have a collection of “pet rocks,” and if I had the slightest interest in palaeontology I could devote the rest of my curtailed life to collecting and classifying the abundance of fossils beneath every waterfall (as a small gesture of domestication or orientation, I have troubled to give each waterfall a personal name, none so trite as Angel’s Hair or Bridal Veil but rather: Grampaw’s Beard, Handkerchief, Indian Tears, Doily, Swansdown, Antimacassar, Spilt Milk, Tatting, Kleenex, Double Dandruff, Needlepoint, Taffeta, Onionskin, Voile, Cheesecloth, White Horse, Bathtowel, Kotex, Dimity, Bedsheet, Toilet Paper, and so on … it is beneath the latter, closest to my rock shelter, that I shower daily, winter and summer, the chill temperature of the water remaining constant year around). But these things are of nature, and while not inanimate — the falls are always animated — they have nothing to do with humanity, except for my humanity, and I am therefore kithless and kinless (except for my distant nearest neighbor who claims to be my distant cousin, though while he is kin he is not kith), detached but not isolated — how can one be isolated in the arms of nature? — secluded but not retired — how can one not devise plenty to do to fill the long day? — solitary but not lonely — how can one be lonely if there is so much of, too much of, oneself constantly present? — withdrawn but not shut-in — how can one remain in a dark cavern when there are so many dark ravines to explore? — private but not secret — how can one avoid improvising this whole tune on one’s comb-and-tissue, for anyone to hear? — forsaking of the world but not of the earth — how can one fail to know the difference? — a recluse but not a hermit — how can one want to avoid all people?
We are all of us recluses, to the extent that, ever since we were drawn from the womb and laid upon a blanket to watch the world come near, we have waited to see what would happen to us, have wondered whose those other’s eyes are and how we appeared to them, have held our small breath to be touched, and twitched our ears to be spoken to, and wracked our little brains to learn what we should do, and how, and when, and sometimes why, and occasionally where. The whole earth itself is alone in the cosmos. Like me, it is so small. Oh, of course there comes an age when we are deluded into autonomy, and the bravest among us, just as Earth thinks itself the only globe alive, think themselves complete masters of their destinies (I must pause to drape a fresh stretch of tissue over my comb) but the most self-reliant individual still watches for the world to come near and waits to see what will happen and wonders how he appears in the other’s eyes. We are all recluses, waiting to be approached. The true hermit is simply he who is never approached. That I have never been approached in these six years does not make of me a hermit. (Oh, I was approached once, by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who somehow found my cavern and sold me a Watchtower, without in the least converting me to their beliefs.) I wouldn’t mind being approached. My dog, a good watchdog if not a sporting dog, would bark at the visitor, but I would bade him hush (the dog, not the visitor). My dog barks only at the rare black bear (Ursus americanus, our own national animal!) who comes sniffing around in a curious and not unfriendly manner. The bear, by the way, is not a gang animal flocking with his kith and kin; he prefers his own company, although just as we speak of a pride of lions or a gaggle of geese or a skulk of foxes, there is a word, sloth, for a pack of bears, but the only time I ever saw a sloth of bears, seven of them, they were drunk on wild apples that had fermented in their bellies, and were lolling about slothfully, empty-eyed and uncommunicative. I have never killed a bear. I had a stuffed bear when I was small. I am still small, but I have outgrown stuffed things.