This Green Thicket World

by Howell Vines
[Atlantic Monthly Press & Little Brown, $2.50]
MR. VINES’S story of This Green Thicket World gives pause to memory, and we reconsider Genesis in a fresh and genial light. (‘God had a mighty big curiosity to satisfy when He made a crawfish.‘) The characters, rooted in their own domain of the Warrior River Country in Alabama, are absorbed in immediate life, with few speculations or stirrings beyond daily existence; but their heartiness is so rousing that through them we learn to evaluate the vitality of human beings by their emotions rather than by their achievements or endeavors.
The book is singularly free from stage effects and ‘typical’ characters. It is no easy task to write a pleasant novel with a rooted-in-the-soil motif. The reading world has grown suspicious of simple souls with earthy philosophy and quaint humor. But in This Green Thicket World we are spared this pot-likker literature, and are refreshed by the courage of an author picturing his own corner of the world with simplicity and strength.
Lat Lisper, head of his tribe and clan; Clay, his son; Greenberry and Asbury Glaze, the tenant laborers, are primitive whites of Alabama. One can hardly imagine a less-promising collection of characters, but the author has chosen them, in all their vain, cheerful, greedy, passionate existence, and his success has been the justification of his choice. He takes us among simple folk who accept their world and glory in it, loving, suffering, and enjoying much as do the beasts and birds. Their great preoccupation is the gratification of man’s two great appetites. It is true that Lat Lisper and Clay Lisper’s sweetheart, Naomi, are ‘ghosted’ with a sense of some vague spiritual meaning beyond their mental grasp, but they are no whit dismayed by the mysteries. They are not writhingly in search of happiness, virtue, or learning; neither have they tedious desires to leave the world better than they found it. Vividly aware of their world, they take it and use it with strong common sense without giving utterance to auctorial philosophy in dialect. In short, Mr. Vines deftly avoids the abyss into which most folk-writers tumble.
The author records with meticulous accuracy — barring a few unimportant slips of phrasing — without self-intrusion. He sets down what his people say and do, not what he supposes they ought to be thinking. Thus he succeeds in conveying with astonishing freshness the delights and limitations of the world we live in. This is no small achievement.
While speculating upon a novel filled to overflowing with admirable qualities, it is easy to be betrayed into declaring it ‘important’ or ’significant.’ In This Green Thicket World there is too little variation of stress for a book of substantial length, with a resultant prolongation that exhausts the capacity for attention. At the end of so many pages of equal value it is difficult to determine whether the book is of outstanding significance or a collection of anecdotes of equal unimportance. As a portrait gallery the book is an outstanding contribution to American letters, but Mr. Vines has become so engrossed in his characters that he has thrown his story away by placing it at the very end of his book.
This neglect of the story in favor of portraiture is tiring to the mind’s eye, and during the midway of the book a suspicion arises that these people are incredibly simple and innocent to the point of imbecility; but the author cleverly saves the situation by tying them securely to the surrounding green thicket, and the reader is forced to admit that ‘it makes no difference so long as he gets up such true words about life and everything.’ It is testimony to the author’s skill that the dismay felt by the reader is not so much a critical reaction to the characters in the book as a fastidious objection to human nature itself in its more dreary phases.
The manner of the book is convincing in its sober strength, and its originality of treatment is genuine. This marks it as a notable contribution to Southern letters.