Brown Dwarf and Other Failed Stars
book review by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
“One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.” — G. K. Chesterton
What is a novel if not an extended daydream of how, for a few or all of us, the world might be? It could be a utopia or a dystopia, a meander down a certain path, of how things might work out or go deeply wrong. The writer gets to make up and populate a little world, put himself and us in it, and if he can, play by his own invented rules. He gives his imagined world a shove and sets it racketing on its doomed or merry way. Up ahead the reader expects collisions, conflict and consequence.
Lynn Miller’s Brown Dwarf is a story whose setting is close to where we stand, a parable for these dark days. When corporate forces and their political shills have a stranglehold on ordinary reality, and folks can’t find a way to avoid the death-grip of profit. We recognize the book’s time of paranoia and nefarious deeds, of spying and vulnerability even out at the end of the road, where wild rural nature still scurries and hopes to hide itself.
This book is part novel, part poem, part memoir, part sketchpad — subtly paced, bursting with life taken personally. It is rich and pungent, awake and unashamed. It is a world capable of surprise, of nature as often almost another character, singing out of the profound depths of its past, out of its myriad shape-shifting lives. The book’s main character is a young would-be Oregon farmer, Enno Duden, who seems to threaten urban and corporate entities by his very existence, his open desire to make a life for himself and his friends. It is the story told by a lifelong farmer, artist and commentator, of that awakening desire to farm, with inchoate glimmers and murmurs of what that calling might ultimately mean.
Lynn Miller’s expressions can be astonishing, riveting, deft and substantial. With serious matters afoot in a perilous world, his intentions need to be felt as much as thought, traced and shaded with the proper tools. He reaches into the old paint can full of writing, drawing and painting implements, pulls forth and examines the business end of a tool, tests it for heft and sharpness, scribbles at the margins of a blank page until the marks there are fluid, healing and refreshing as a morning cloudburst over prairie hills.
Let us for a moment savor the nuanced flavors and verbal density that is Brown Dwarf. Here is a description of Benjamin Aboo, the dwarf himself:
He is a diminutive man of enormous stature and presence. To put him in some sort of narrative context, he is not a born leader, he is a self-made contradiction and mystery. Benji Aboo in another time would have been a wizard’s counsel, he would have been a shoe-repairman who wrote poetry, he would have been a steam-fitter who played clarinet to himself, he would have been the roundup cook who gently trains broncs after dark when all the tough guys have fallen asleep. He would have been the night janitor on the hospital’s graveyard shift who sits bedside with terminally ill children and old people, telling them in whispered singsong fashion of lives available to them forever. (p. 116)
This is a blend of the personal and the boldly imagined, a full-throated fantasy given a rich telling. Miller’s methods require occasional diversions and sharp distinctions. Each character has a voice, yet crowds of characters also express themselves in a taut and vibrant medley. Here be ghosts as well as a gum-chewing old cattle dog named Resumé, adrift in his thoughts and intentions. Then too sprinkled about are the voices of those elders who invented the language, tunes and brushstrokes of the adventure tale, strangely familiar, ensconced as parts of the telling — we might greet Walter Brennan or Herman Melville, come upon Louis Prima with his horn or Rabelais and his pair of innocent giants, even Twain and his raft drifting the great loopy river with its pair of runaways. Again and again Lawrence Sterne appears, with a dance step reminiscent of the deft footwork of Lynn Miller.
Without spilling the beans, there is one more feature to this book that might entice the benighted reader to stay aboard for the ride. And that is the dialogue between narrator and author, between the story and its characters, and what the book is trying to say — out beyond any entertainment, what has to be said at all costs. Here is a taste of their contest:
<This book is insane. Nobody is going to believe this junk.
It was never meant to be believable. It was to be provocative entertainment, it was meant to be thin sweet soup with floating clusters of thoughtful dumplings.
Well, it ain’t. It’s more like Edward Scissorhands alone in a dark closet with a roll of wet toilet paper.
You know I can find other narrators.
I’ll say it again, this book is insane…> (p. 206)
The two voices’ hairsplitting is playful yet deeply serious — it holds some confessions and admissions, some blurting out, some late-night confidences and buttoned lips. It is what the book’s art, elusive and imperishable, is finally about.
What happens to this young farmer dropped into a spy thriller without a parachute can’t help but come as a shining surprise. In Miller’s world Nature seems almost to relish its potential to thwart human misdeeds, solve man-made problems and meet human needs — as if human greed and autocratic control were minor failings easily forgiven, as if the whole planet still deserved a many-tongued voice and a diplopod dance to a vast harmonic measure. This is a dark comedy to brighten the night sky, a novel as purgative, a bracing and serious ride.