Arts & Literature

A New Kind of Down East

Valley writer Corwin Ericson crafts his own New England in his debut novel Swell.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011
Ann Tweedy Photo
Corwin Ericson, author of Swell

The transition between the main road and Corwin Ericson's Wendell manse is a voyage within a voyage. Wendell has long managed the trick of feeling like the farthest point from any other in the Valley, so travelling beyond its main drag already feels like stepping into that part of the map that used to say "here there be monsters."

Ericson calls the copse of monstrous sculptures beside his driveway "Drivewayopolis," and imagines it as some long-lost, foresty city he's slowly uncovering, rather than something he's putting together from the detritus he brings back from walks in the woods.

Travel beyond Drivewayopolis and you realize that, yes, you really did see manmade shapes among the chaos nature has sprouted. A gown made of window screen, filled with bittersweet, looks like it grew from the tree where it resides; storm-broken branches pile up in a way that nature never could have managed.

Ericson offers me a tour, and patterns become clearer. Take in the place at a glance and things seem manicured and tended, arranged with an interesting eye for art. But he points out what I didn't see at first: the moss up front? It's a moss garden, kept clear of the debris trees drop on it. The stones are not piled randomly, but according to intensity of color in one place, the bearing of stripes in another. The environment, for a good many yards in every direction, has been transformed, in some cases meticulously, through the careful weaving of branches or piling of stones. Ericson is not so much a force of nature as a nature-transforming force. Strand him in a wilderness and the wilderness will almost certainly begin to take on strange new form.

It's little wonder, then, that Ericson's just-released novel Swell refuses to be bound by mere reality. Ericson's habit of altering his environment is just as obvious in its pages, and possesses the same, often subtle, touch. Swell's reality is much like the consensus version, but one that's been altered to honor a strange, imagined history.

It's not, however, a story of "alternate history" in the usual sense, no mere posing of a just-off premise like the South winning the Civil War. Swell takes place in a version of the present that leaves most of mainland America untampered with, but stakes out some weird claims for a small New England island called Bismuth. The island turns out to be the western origin of an eastward migration to a couple of European Arctic nations called the North Indies, and two of the novel's major characters hail from those icy locales, awash in cetological traditions and the kind of love/hate feud that only the closest of cousins can whip up.

Ericson, for his part, downplayed his reality manipulation in a recent interview. "I've got a loose grip on reality," he says, laughing. "I was just wrong about a lot of stuff."

His starting point for reimagining coastal New England was the inversion of the directional trend of European and American migration: "Why not go east instead of west?"

That in turn was based on what Ericson says is a lesser-known claim for Bostonian origins (he grew up in eastern Massachusetts). "There was a period when people pushed the idea that Boston was of Scandinavian origin," he says. "In a couple of hours in Boston, you can walk from the Christopher Columbus statue to the Leif Erikson statue. I lie to people and tell them I'm a direct descendant [of Leif]."

Though Ericson tends toward a playful brand of reality distortion, he's not kidding about the Scandinavian notion—a professor named Eben Norton Horsford took up the cause with great determination, and is apparently responsible for that Erikson statue, in addition to identifying the fabled city of Norumbega as Boston, an idea that caused a stir. "In the 1880s, you were kind of allowed to dig something up and declare it Swedish," says Ericson. Which seems to be precisely what Horsford did to "prove" his case.

"North America basically wasn't in the Bible," says Ericson, "so there was no way to account for it. It's a problem. You have to fill it up with God's people somehow, by dubbing the natives the lost tribe of Israel or whatever."

In Swell, the island of Bismuth is, despite being populated by an insular bunch of Yankees, a place the North Indian natives see as an important starting point for their eastward voyage. North America becomes, despite its current status as thoroughly explored, a weird land, one which Bismuthians barely visit and seem vaguely afraid of. In fact, the mainland goes entirely unvisited in Swell except for a strange excursion to a place rather like Woods Hole.

It somehow makes perfect sense for America to seem wild and mysterious when you're in the woods of Wendell, and it's that particularly Valley sense of isolation that seems to have pushed Swell into its odd territory. "If people can believe that Saint Brendan came over in a leather coracle and sat in a cave in Shutesbury," says Ericson, "why not believe there are Scandinavian islands settled by North American natives?"

Ericson earned an M.F.A. from UMass-Amherst and later served as managing editor of the Massachusetts Review. At UMass, he studied poetry, and kept his novel writing propensity largely under wraps. He's never had illusions about the necessity of writing: "The world doesn't need a new novel. It needs a new poem even less."

His secret labor, coupled with that view, afforded him, he says, a high degree of freedom in his writing. "It let me be more playful. It's just like [my artwork] here—nobody's asking me questions. I could just throw it all out and start over."

Which isn't to say that putting together a novel wasn't frustrating to him. When it wasn't coming out right, he says, "It's like when your car doesn't work and you see all the other people driving theirs by."

After all his working and reworking—"I've never finished something so often in my life," he says—Ericson's novel is a weird romp, told in sometimes wildly funny, arch prose.

The protagonist goes by the bubbly handle Orange Whippey, and is a sort of lazy man's Ulysses, seldom straying far from his island home, and tripping from one outrageous situation to another, from a drug-fueled priapic fencing bout to a blind beer-tasting with Korean smugglers.

Swell has moments of lyricism. A gorgeously written reverie about icebergs seems to hail from Ericson's best poetic instincts: "The birds sing atop and the whales moan from below; the foot of the berg dragging across the ocean floor makes the sound of an orchestra besieging a symphony; over time their skirmishes resolve into what sounds like a coordinated battle. If you listen long enough, the battles come to tell the stories of peoples—eddas of tribes and nations, sagas of herds and flocks."

Lyricism or no, it's a novel whose humor is its connective tissue. Its first few paragraphs discuss, of all things, musings about certain male fluids arcing overboard from fishing vessels, and its first sentence focuses on a buttock bearing a Blue Oyster Cult tattoo. Ericson's small details are often the most entertaining: "I watched rejectionist wasps that refused to believe in glass bonk against the pane."

Though Swell's plot is wild in its contours, a sort of whale-y tangle of intrigue somewhere between Big Lebowski and Moby Dick, it's Ericson's off-kilter prose that propels the novel and makes the whole thing fall nicely through the cracks of easy expectation.

Ericson plans to celebrate the novel's release at The Rendezvous in Turners Falls. He will then, it seems likely, retreat past Drivewayopolis to his Wendell patch and drag more material from the woods, ready to be hewn into some other upwelling of his distinctly New England-flavored weirdness."

Swell book release: Dec. 11, 4 p.m., The Rendezvous, 78 Third St., Turners Falls, (413) 863-2866, www.rendezvoustfma.com.

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