House of Earth
4th Estate, £14.99 (€17.57); Kindle, $11.51 (€8.86)
Review: Billy O’Callaghan
Woody Guthrie’s music was always possessed of a rare humanity, a deep concern and respect for the working class and the downtrodden. Songs of serious social consequence such as ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’, ‘Vigilante Man’, ‘Pastures of Plenty’ and especially ‘This Land is Your Land’ have helped ensure his immortality. He has been down the book road before too, with an autobiography, Bound For Glory, that was published to great acclaim in 1943 and brought to life on the big screen in the mid ’70s. House of Earth is something else entirely, Guthrie’s attempt at a novelistic response, and perhaps corrective, to The Grapes of Wrath.
Tike and Ella May Hamlin are subsistence farmers battling to survive the arid elements of the Texas Panhandle. Tike, armed with a five- cent government pamphlet, dreams of building an adobe house that will let them escape their shack and bear up to the wild north winds.
There is little in the way of actual plot. Instead, focus is turned on the minutiae of small, hard lives played out very much in harmony with the cycle of the seasons.
Aside from a prolonged and unexpectedly explicit hay-bale love scene, all the familiar Guthrie concerns are touched upon: The faceless banks, the trials of the working class, the struggle for dignity and love against all odds. But the final result lacks the searing commentary and down-home panache of the author’s finest songs.
It is nice to have newly unearthed Woody Guthrie product, coming just a year on from his centenary, and providing the reader can take this for what it really is, a curio that has been left languish some 60-odd years for a reason, there is pleasure to be found within its pages, not least for the peculiar but affecting lyrical quality of his prose, the authenticity of his dialogue, and particularly the surreality of his descriptions. But it is a product that adds little to the Guthrie legend. This novel lurks in the no man’s land between Steinbeck and Kerouac, complete in its way but never wholly realised.
However, literary historian Douglas Brinkley and newly minted publishing magnate Johnny Depp would have you believe otherwise. Their long introduction starts out well in attempting to expose the book’s roots, unfurling Guthrie’s life journey from his dustbowl Oklahoman origins, through various hardships and tragedies, to settling with his father in Pampa, Texas, where he’d soon marry. Unfortunately, things all too quickly descend into Hollywood bombast. Guthrie does hit on themes as relevant to the downtrodden of today’s Haiti as to Depression -era dust bowlers, but the editorial efforts at pitching this as some kind of long-lost American classic are drastically overblown.
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