There are novels in which place is a character unto itself, when tone and setting are so artfully evoked that the reader is practically standing alongside the story’s protagonists. A skilled writer transports readers by drawing on the generalities with we’re all familiar–nature, in its grandeur or grotesqueness; city life, with its commotion and loneliness–and then situating them within the unique context–the setting–of the story. Philip Meyer’s American Rust comes to mind, as do Cormac McCarthy’s novels. With a touch less darkness and a pinch of magic, we may add add Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (February 2014, Penguin) to that list.
The story is set in an isolated town in British Columbia. As with many small towns, this one is less an idyllic hamlet than it is a hopeless blip in the wilderness. Harun masterfully conveys the desolation with references to an apparently hostile natural world and the rot characteristic at humanity’s attempts to defy it. Gerald Flacker, the local meth dealer, and his cronies, the Nagle brothers, treat the town as their personal fiefdom. Harun immediately establishes a sense of creeping dread: The town is adjacent to Highway 16, the so-called “Highway of Tears,” along which women, mostly aboriginal, have been disappearing for decades. In short, this is not a friendly place.
That’s not to say that Leo Kreutzer, on whom Harun focuses, is without friends. Poor and marginalized–Leo is half-white, half-aboriginal–Leo and his friends cling all the more fiercely to one another. Family, too, is important: Leo’s mother takes in her brother-in-law, the dying Uncle Lud, despite her husband’s absence. Brother and sister Bryan and Ursie, orphans, maintain a semblance of family in their parents’ decaying house. Tessa, on whom Leo has a crush, and Jackie, who works at the logging camp, round out the crew.
What plot there is unravels messily and without tidy resolution, which, in that respect, mirrors real life. The novel opens with the group engaged in a favorite pastime, as they linger at the town dump, shooting rats and birds. Jackie introduces her friends to Hana Swann, a charismatic itinerant who also works in the logging camp’s cafeteria. Swann, in contrast to Leo and his friends, is extremely pale, and her presence at once alluring and repellent: She shoots a marmot (a protected species). She challenges the friends to do something about Flacker, a notion that possesses Bryan and sets the plot in motion. Upon learning of Swann, Uncle Lud insists that Leo has met the “Snow Queen,” a troublesome character known to Leo from the many folktales his uncle unspools. Readers may wonder at Swann’s subsequent disappearance from the story, but she is like the “devil’s hopscotch” to which Harun refers, a stray stone thrown in that scatters players in a variety of unexpected directions.
A Man Came Out of the Door in the Mountain is really a story about stories, the ways in which we construct meaning by imposing a narrative on events. Indeed, much of the book consists of Leo’s recollections after the fact, but related as present tense, a method that keeps the reader on his (and Harun’s) hook. Leo receives e-mails from the instructor of the correspondence physics class his mother forced him into. The notes are strangely personal, as Leo’s instructor explains that she attempted to study poetry at the graduate level but failed, and later turned to, and excelled at, science. Still, she quotes Leonard Cohen to Leo even as she analyzes his personality (with little to go on, as he is disengaged and sends her just one equation in which he proposes how one might quantify love). Science improves our lives, it provides us answers, but it can’t generate meaning. Uncle Lud knows this intuitively, spinning folktales about a devil in which he doesn’t really believe. Uncle Lud believes in stories, Leo tells readers.
Of course, we readers believe in stories, too, or we wouldn’t spend so many hours shushing our loved ones while we turn page after page. We may not take to heart the superstitious Catholic-aboriginal mishmash Leo’s mom practices, but we understand her reasons. Like Uncle Lud, we know that there are very real devils in the world, and that sometimes only the context of fiction can make them real. A haunting novel with folkloric and magical realist elements, A Man Came Out of the Door in the Mountain is a debut not to be missed.