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Cold Poetry

By Margaret Black

The Maytrees

By Annie Dillard

HarperCollins, 216 pages, $24.95

Annie Dillard can obviously write anything she turns her hand to, but The Maytrees, her second novel, bears a greater resemblance to her poetry, her essays on nature, and her speculations on meaning than it does to your typical story about falling in love, marrying, having a baby and splitting over infidelity. Yet that’s what The Maytrees is about, theoretically.

Toby Maytree, a World War II vet just returned to his hometown of Provincetown, Mass., falls utterly in love with Lou, a tall, beautiful, preternaturally quiet young woman. He carefully woos and wins her, and the couple settle down to a life of very little paid employment and much free time. For cash Toby moves houses and does some carpentry; for meaning he writes poetry. Lou reads; she doesn’t talk much, but she laughs at all Toby’s comments. “Clams live like this,” Dillard tells us, “but without so much reading as the Maytrees.” The Maytrees’ friends are an assortment of escaping radicals, intellectuals, artists, and women whose lives don’t fit the norm, especially the much-married, much-bedded Deary Hightoe, who sleeps in the dunes all summer wrapped up in a sail. After a couple of years the Maytrees have one child, Petie (later Pete), who, when he’s 12, is struck by a car while riding his bicycle. The day his parents bring him and his broken legs home from the hospital, Toby announces he’s leaving Lou, running off to Maine with Deary. Inexplicably Deary reverts to her original incarnation as a graduate in architecture from MIT and persuades Toby to build houses, make money, and entertain at a dining room table lit by three chandeliers. Lou, meanwhile, learns to shed everything and live with even less than that. Twenty years later, all three are brought together again, their lives, as Dillard says, having been “played out before the backdrop of fixed stars.”

But you don’t read this book for the plot or even the characters. Not everything they do makes much sense. Instead you read for all the author’s other talents. When Lou first goes out with young Toby, on a hike to his one-room shack, she observes the scene with the eyes of Dillard the naturalist: “A stillness as of empty space marked all she saw. It was this loping shore of mineral silence people meant when they said ‘the dunes.’ The surface of the moon might look like this: rudimentary.” The snakes (they figure largely in this curious Eden), the clams, the fish, the waves—they’re all precise, exactly rendered. Of the Maytrees’ summer friends, Dillard says, they “harvested facts row on row from newspapers like mice on corncobs.” But Dillard’s never been sappy about nature. Toby recalls going as a boy with all the other townsfolk to watch a fishing boat manned by their neighbors torn apart on a sandbar where it had run aground in a winter storm. No rescuers could reach them, and freezing in the sleety gale, “the stranded crewmen dropped all night like acorns.”

Mostly, however, The Maytrees is a meditation on love and its strangely unique ways of working. Toby has desperately loved Lou, and that love attenuates, so he comes to desperately love Deary. But when that love thins as well, he concludes that nevertheless “he was obliged to love Deary. Now with and for Deary, he had wrapped his hands around oars, iced them fast, and kept rowing.”

For her part, Deary, in her earlier Bohemian incarnation, had once married an Azorean fisherman. His family froze him out because she wasn’t Catholic, and she realized “he obviously missed his gregarious kin, just across town, so Deary sadly released him.”

At first Lou doesn’t do so well when Toby leaves her. “She had no force to fight what held her as wind pins paper to a fence. She was a wood horse, a rock cairn, a jerry can of pitch. She found herself holding one end of a love. She reeled out love’s long line alone; it did not catch.” Eventually she decides to let go, even as she wonders: “If overcoming self- centeredness was the goal, then why were we born into a selfish stew?” Briefly she paints, but when a gallery manages to persuade her to show a couple of her works, she steals them back the night before the show. Mostly, however, she drops away everything she doesn’t need. “In the past few years she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care. She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened her days like a piñata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched years to her lifespan like a kite tail.”

Although there’s not much, Dillard is not without humor. Toby is finally forced to call upon Lou for help because in carrying the dying Deary out of a doctor’s office, he slips on ice and (having lovingly tossed Deary into a “fresh snowbank”) breaks both arms, his clavicle, and some ribs. And surely Deary is a curious, playful name, easily misread as Dreary.

The last act is played out on the tip of Cape Cod again, where Toby, in his young writing days, had “found a Cambrian calm as if the world had not yet come; he found a posthumous hush as if humans had gone.” Although Lou speculates about death, about bacteria “unhooking her painstakingly linked neurons” and carrying them home “to chew up for their horrific babies,” her final acts for Toby are all ones of love. We may barely count as objects in the universe, Dillard says in this somewhat chill book, but we count nonetheless, especially to each other.

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