It may be a little grand to say it, but there’s something uniquely, creatively American about Brian Wood’s story, Fallen Timbers. A quiet confidence of place and names. The sturdy belief that comes from knowing that the setting doesn’t need to be named to be understood. I’m Australian, and I knew right away. America.
There’s a plot, but this is a story about feel. A man, nameless, picks up a much older gentleman who is primarily concerned with burning down a nearby fort. He wants to make things right, though he doesn’t clearly indicate what’s wrong with the state of the world today, or how burning down this specific fort might make much of a difference. But it’s meaningful to him and, for the length of the drive, it’s meaningful to the narrator. The older man was
walking alone in a fierce summer. Even with the late sun, merciless as ever, he wore a flannel, tucked in and buttoned all the way to his neck. And that made him an even sadder thing, it seemed to me. The man labored on with a tiny gas can. He swung his arm wild to keep his balance. He shuffled along, right to where the sidewalk ended and it was only the road and the weeds.
He has purpose, even if that purpose is ridiculous. His life – or at least his life right now – has a meaning that the narrator clearly envies, even though both the narrator and the reader is able to tell that this is a feeble dream, one that may be worth imagining, perhaps, but lessens in the execution.
The older man has his idea as a kind of blanket – it comforts him. He is purposeful and knows that what he is doing is right, even if he himself has difficulty articulating why this is so. The narrator, who positions himself early as young and not yet being “wise enough to bury the feeling” wants, it becomes clear, some of this purpose for himself. Not this specific purpose, but the feeling of it, the rightness and knowing of it.
Wood’s language is sparse and clean, not to the point of being clipped, but close. There is very little verbal flourish – this is a tale which gains from a lack of panache, it doesn’t need to be detailed at length or belaboured. Given that, word choice matters a good deal, and by and large Wood stays true to the terse, rugged cadence of the sentences (is there any accident the story is set in a terse, rugged landscape, with clear fresh air and stolid men?). One word trips the story, I think, and that is pierced:
We came around a curve and the fort rose before us. Perched on a small bluff, against the bend of the river, the wooden blockhouse and bleached palisades pierced the sky.
It’s too aggressive for the story, too sharp. Do palisades really pierce the sky? Not to my mind’s eye. But it’s a small complaint, a brief jarring moment in an otherwise crisp and compact story.
And the older man? Well, he explains himself, but it’s not really an explanation. The story itself is the examination of the admiration we feel for those who have a purpose, even when it is odd, even when it is unknown to us. To be larger than we are, isn’t that something? And to glimpse it in another – there’s something to that. Like touching greatness.