Cooking the Books
If you visit a bookstore between now and the end of the year, it's a safe bet you'll walk smack into a heap of Peace Like a River, the debut novel of former Minnesota Public Radio correspondent Leif Enger. Perhaps an adjacent placard will advise you to "discover" this promising new writer from Osakis, Minnesota. A salesperson may even guide you gently toward the book.
Ever the wary consumer, you might take a moment to scan the blurbs on the book's jacket. At which point you'll be assuaged by raves so superlative-laden they'd make Sony's fantasy film critic, David Manning, blush. Rick Bass, we learn, finds Peace Like a River, "the loveliest of gifts, a truly great book, into which the reader can sink deliciously and completely." And no less an august literary personage than Frank McCourt assures us that the book is "seductive and deliciously American and there are passages so wondrous and wise you'll want to claw yourself with pleasure." You may wonder in passing when "delicious" became the preferred adjective of blurbologists, or whether you really want to spend a weekend clawing yourself. But you might reasonably assume that any book that gets McCourt so breathless he forgets to punctuate is a worthy investment.
The fuss surrounding Peace Like a River is inescapable. The book's publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, ordered an initial print run of 100,000 copies--unheard-of for a debut work by an unknown writer--and is supporting the novel with an equally unprecedented $150,000 marketing campaign. "We knew from the beginning we had a great product," says Grove/Atlantic marketing director Judy Hottensen. "It may look from the outside like it's effortless, but we've been working our tails off to get the word out. It's a very old-fashioned kind of selling: We fly around a lot, talk to people about the book, get people talking to the author."
According to Tom Bielenberg, a buyer at St. Paul's Ruminator, Grove/Atlantic put particular effort into talking the title up to the nation's independent bookstores. "They're very good at spreading the word way ahead of time," he says. "This is definitely one of the books that people here have been talking about."
To Bielenberg, it's clear that Grove/Atlantic is hoping to revisit its success with another first novel, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. (Elisabeth Schmitz, the editor who acquired Frazier's novel, also worked on Enger's.) Cold Mountain, which began with a modest initial print run of 25,000, built through word of mouth and "hand-selling" by independent booksellers into the publishing gold strike of 1997, moving an eventual 1.6 million hardcover copies. In addition to being a major financial score, Bielenberg explains, Cold Mountain gave Grove/Atlantic credibility to burn with book buyers and independent sellers. "When you have that kind of success, for some years afterward you're inclined to give them more than the time of day," he says.
As much as is possible in this age of counterfeit enthusiasm, Cold Mountain was a bolt of lightning from clear skies. This time around, though, Grove Atlantic left nothing to chance--they're practically standing on the roof with a golf club in the air. Beginning almost a year before Peace Like a River's September 20 national-release date, the publisher began placing ads in Publishers Weekly to drum up interest, and distributing thousands of advance copies to reviewers and bookstores across the country. Their preemptive saturation bombing worked: At this year's Book Expo America, the publishing industry's massive annual gathering, Peace was unofficially coronated the next Cold Mountain. Further promoting the comparison, Atlantic has even re-enlisted the same blurbists (Rick Bass, a stalwart raver, said of Cold Mountain, "It seems even possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one.") Pre-publication blurbs ought to be read with a jaundiced eye, of course. A cynic might suspect, for instance, that McCourt (who happens to share a literary agent with Enger) was picked mostly for name recognition--a rarefied cousin to the celebrities hawking acne cream on late-night television.
Whatever the case, Atlantic's investment in hype is paying dividends: Before its publication, Enger's novel was optioned for a film by the producer of Chocolat and Jaws, sold for publication in eight foreign markets, selected by the Book of the Month Club, and scheduled to appear as both an audio book and a Reader's Digest Select Edition. Somehow, Peace Like a River even managed to sneak onto a number of bestseller lists before it was widely available in bookstores. And early reviews gushingly compared the book not only to Cold Mountain but also to American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye.
"Peace Like a River is one that will stay with you for a while," reads a typical rave in The Denver Post. "It's not likely you'll read a better piece of fiction this year. Go out and get a copy; savor it."
Peace Like a River, perhaps the most assiduously manufactured sleeper hit in history, has been canonized faster than Mother Teresa--and essentially before anyone outside the publishing world has had the chance to read it.
Which raises the question, What of the book itself? Set in early-1960s rural Minnesota, Peace Like a River concerns the travels and travails of the Land family. This brood consists of a father and three precocious siblings: the severely asthmatic Reuben, who narrates the novel; his eight-year-old sister Swede, who writes epic poetry based on Zane Grey novels; and Davy, an Eagle Scout-type older brother who's handy with firearms.
As the surname may suggest, the Lands are real salt-of-the-earth folk, latter-day Joads of the we're-poor-but-we-have-our-dignity variety. The family's patriarch, Jeremiah, is a model of Christian piety--he makes Atticus Finch look like Charles Manson in seersucker. Jeremiah is a saint, in fact, who heals lepers, walks on thin air, and does a neat little trick with loaves and fishes. While these miracles are de rigueur in the Land household, they make the family appear rather odd to their fellow townsfolk. "Real miracles bother people," Reuben tells us in his typical aw-shucks voice, "like strange, sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave--now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time."
Still, there are advantages to having a prophet for a dad. At the novel's opening, for instance, Jeremiah saves the infant Reuben by commanding him to breathe "in the name of the living God." "When you are seven years old there's nothing as lovely and tragic as telling your friends you were just about dead once," Reuben explains of his propitious birth. "It made my Dad a hero, as you might expect, won him my forgiveness for anything that he might do forever; but until later events it didn't occur to me to wonder why I was allowed, after all, to breathe and keep breathing."
The portentously foreshadowed events in question are these: After tangling with two local ne'er-do-wells who are harassing his sister, Davy shoots them when they invade the Land homestead. Sent to trial for the murders--we're asked to disregard the fact that his crime is practically an advertisement for the Second Amendment--he breaks out of prison and goes on the lam. This family of God-fearing tornado bait, having nothing else to do, packs its worldly belongings into an Airstream trailer (acquired miraculously, of course) and sets out for the frontier of North Dakota--the road to Damascus, but with snow.
Their journey is mirrored, in the book's major dramatic device, by Swede's epic poem, about an Old West lawman named Sunny Sundown who stoically suffers Job-like indignities. "The blizzard shipped in from the west like a grin," one typical snippet of her pre-pubescent Odyssey reads, "On a darkened malevolent face/And the posse that sought Mr. Sundown was caught/In an awfully dangerous place."
Once the Lands hit the road, Peace Like a River begins to run in an entirely different direction. Whereas the early chapters are filled with measured, richly descriptive evocations of a rural childhood--replete with simple pleasures like goose hunting and churchgoing--the story suddenly becomes a crime potboiler, stocked with genre conventions like an unctuous federal lawman, crashingly obvious symbolism, and a series of wildly unbelievable coincidences. Enger, who cut his teeth co-writing mystery novels with his brother, reverts in places to a sort of lockstep plotting, and the intimate drama of the Lands' situation largely falls by the wayside as their adventure rushes on.
As a fugitive-on-the-run thriller, Peace Like a River is in the vein of escapist entertainment. At times, in fact, Enger seems to be consciously mimicking the pulp Western romances favored by Swede: Although the novel is set in a putatively modern America, it's filled with horses, bad guys, good guys, and lots of purdy scenery. The novel's milieu, which has all the mystery of three-bean salad, is no more relevant to the 1960s than it is to the 1860s. There's no harm in romantic pulp. But Enger's model doesn't allow for much shading or moral complexity. He seems, instead, to demarcate good and evil by those who can cook and those who can't: A hero who can produce a bottomless pot of soup is a messiah; a villain who stews a pet pig is evil incarnate. There's certainly wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount--"by their fruits shall ye know them"--but this seems to be taking the Bible a bit too literally. (It would be downright disingenuous to cite Jeremiah 51:63: "When thou hast made an end of reading this book, thou shalt bind a stone to it, and cast it into the midst of the Euphrates").
Despite a patina of 7th Heaven religiosity, Enger paints Peace Like a River in the primary colors of a folktale. It's almost as though he has taken Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon as a model without first wedging tongue into cheek: The men are all strong; the women all bake; and the children are all wise beyond their years. There's so little nuance in this faux-folksy world that what at first seems quaint can become cloying. The Land children, for instance, eventually come to resemble the wised-up kids on TV sitcoms, always ready with an eye-rolling homily or a heroic couplet. Enger's characters, like the square-jawed heroes of dime novels, strain credulity because of their perfect virtue: The Lands are such paragons of Midwestern wholesomeness that their deadeningly earnest philosophizing approaches self-parody. In the midst of all this sweetness and light, there is a whiff of phoniness.
Still, Peace Like a River isn't presumptuous: It doesn't make any claims to topicality or sophistication. Enger's novel seems perfectly content to be an ambling, albeit readable, adventure story. At the risk of praising with a faint damnation, the best way to put it might be to say that the book's achievement is as modest as its seeming ambition. It's purely a function of marketing that Peace has become, by way of Grove/Atlantic's advertising, "a breathtaking celebration of family, faith, and America's pioneering spirit."
As such, it's unfair to begrudge Enger his rocket ride to literary renown. The publisher's marketing gambit is certainly no more disingenuous than those regularly marshaled by Hollywood. They're simply selling the sizzle. As the Ruminator's Bielenberg notes, though, any book ultimately survives on its merit. "A marketing campaign only goes so far; it has to be a good book. What really carries a book and keeps people interested in it is good word-of-mouth."
Thus far, Bielenberg continues, the buzz favors another of the season's much-anticipated titles, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. In an instructive contrast to Grove/Atlantic's campaign, that novel's publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, struck some observers as less aggressive in its efforts. "They're both great books," Bielenberg says. "But The Corrections isn't as driven by marketing. It wasn't as focused or as intentional a campaign." Still, bolstered by glowing reviews, The Corrections has already justified its hype. As of last week, Franzen's novel was seventh on the New York Times bestseller list, and No. 1 among independent booksellers. And, as a crowning laurel, The Corrections was recently given the Oprah's Book Club imprimatur.
Peace Like a River, holding nineteenth and seventh place, respectively, certainly hasn't been a slouch at the cash register. But not even Grove/Atlantic's hard sell can match the power of a true sleeper--a book that readers talk about and recommend to their friends, that we discover without having it rammed down our throats.
And Peace Like a River's critical welcome hasn't been anywhere near unanimous: Already, a minor backlash against the novel's presupposed greatness has begun. A September 9 review in the New York Times, for instance, opined that the novel "suffers from a surplus of pretension...and a dearth of surprises." And, in a seething jeremiad in Raleigh, North Carolina's News & Observer, Virginia-based critic Robert Lalasz wrote, "When serious money gets thrown after seriously bad books like this, it means that many others--well-crafted works by first novelists or ones in mid-career--don't get the attention they deserve, or just don't come out at all....As they're counting their millions and discussing dates with Oprah, let's hope Enger's publishers at Atlantic Monthly Press find a minute to feel that most old-fashioned, four-square emotion of all: shame."
It's not as dire as all that: There are still plenty of books, good and bad, being published. But one may wonder how well Enger has been served by his publisher's strategy. Under the weight of such hopelessly overblown expectations, even Oprah's garland might become a crown of thorns.
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