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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
Into the Desperate Country
By Jeff Vande Zande

March Street Press, 2006

Reviewed by Kerry Marino
Famous words set the tone of Jeff Vande Zande's novel, Into the Desperate Country:

  The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.    
  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.
  From the desperate city you go into the desperate country,
And have to console yourself with the bravery
  Of minks and muskrats.

- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The novel proceeds into a wooded setting where a desperate, rather lost character is innocently challenging the working class doldrums of modern society. Years after losing his wife and daughter, Stanley Carter is adrift.   He has no job and he confines himself to his cabin in the woods to fish and think of a way to answer the question that echoes throughout the entire book: what will you do now?  After neglecting the outside world for so long, he finally makes contact with a pretty woman named June who has come to tell Stanley that his property is on the verge of being foreclosed.   They have an odd romantic connection and she says she could help him, but before she tries to, Stan panics and June disappears from his humble abode.   The plot starts to pick up.
The sequence of events that ensue are unconvincing.  Stan is removed from nature and solitude and brought right into the middle of society, where he is faced with more human interaction than he can handle.   His life becomes one bad dream where nothing seems to fit.  He ends up tracking down June and the sparks fly, but not before he makes a naked visit to another man's cabin, places a desperate phone call, gets in a car accident with a pothead, and runs from the police.   Surprises like these are sprinkled throughout the entire book.

Besides the nightmarish plot, the beautiful and thoughtful imagery within Into the Desperate Country proves that the author is a crafty and gifted writer.   His descriptions are vivid enough to stand alone like poetry.  In the following passage, Stan is offered a joint by June's brother.











       
   The novel is not just about the desperate country. It is also about the desperate city. When he is forced to face society, Stan finds plenty of people leading normal working American lives who blindly press forward without thinking twice about their purpose or, ultimately, their happiness. Unfortunately, because everyone in the novel is so very desperate, many of the characters fall flat.

But Into the Desperate Country leaves us with interesting questions. Will Stan succumb to the demands of society?  Or will he surpass it all?   Will he make it from the desperate city back to the desperate country from whence he came?

The darkness of the trees loomed above them.  Stan hadn't realized that the woods were so close on this side of the house.  Light shined from the deck.  Someone's elbow poked out over the railing.   He studied it.  Something about it seemed important, tender even.  He smiled at the elbow…
Light-headed, Stan crouched down against the side of the house.   Pete joined him.  He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but after a wile he no longer heard Pete hitting the joint.  The elbow was gone when he looked for it.   Surfacing from the muck that the pot had made of his mind, he had a thought.  "So, it doesn't bother you at all?" he asked.
"What?'  The word seemed to float from Pete's mouth and then pop into sound, as though a child had blown it from a plastic bubble stick.