Bearings and Distances
by Glenn Arbery.
Wiseblood Books, 2015.
Paperback, 335 pages, $13.

To those who desire to think the same way others think, who long to crush dissent and to be on the right side of history, real literature is an oddity, an affront, the relic of an incomprehensible past. It makes too many nonsensical demands. It serves no obvious practical purpose. Regardless of its quality, an ambitious work by an unknown novelist is likely to find very few takers. Editors and agents are their usual busy selves. Journalists, with some noble exceptions, are much more interested in their own careers than in the work of actual authors. In fact, the recent brouhaha over the fate of the Catholic novel has been largely an affair of journalists.

One of the few men to actually do something about this situation is Joshua Hren, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books. With its small but savvy staff, Wiseblood has survived the callousness of the press mob, as well as the shrunken appetite of the reading public, to produce books of high quality by such talented writers as Micah Cawber, Amy Krohn, F. J. Rocca, and James Matthew Wilson. It has produced these books on an austerity budget, with very good editing and an extraordinary commitment of time.

Whether Wiseblood can continue under these circumstances is a difficult question. The publication of Glenn Arbery’s American epic, Bearings and Distances, epitomizes Wiseblood’s approach. Arbery’s novel is as long as Moby Dick. Wiseblood is publishing it as a paperback, 335 clean but crowded pages, whereas a major house might have given it six hundred pages in hardcover. What were the folks at Wiseblood thinking? There are no evil conservatives in these pages, no endangered species, no political activists, and no satisfying answers to our social problems. On the other hand, there are a lot of dictionary words (not as many as in Moby Dick, but still quite a few). What possessed Wiseblood to take such a gamble? Did Lionel Trilling haunt their inboxes? Did Robert Giroux lecture them in a collective dream? Bearings and Distances is nothing short of a first-rate American novel, astonishingly resourceful, an Arethusan fountain of language, accomplished in its craft, fertile and unflagging in its energies and frequencies.

After an unsettling prologue that anticipates the book’s long historical arc, the novel opens in the summer of 2009 at an outdoor restaurant in Rome. Thieves plague the Eternal City, and Braxton Forrest, the novel’s adulterous, middle-aged, lion-headed protagonist, parts ways with his embittered wife, Marisa. Their teenage daughters have been stranded in Forrest’s hometown of Gallitan, Georgia, and Marisa demands that her husband retrieve them while she continues on her Catholic pilgrimage, alone. Forrest’s unexpected return to the mythical Gallitan becomes a journey into his past, and into the history of the American South. Arbery’s subtle, omniscient narration stays close to Forrest’s point of view, but Arbery reserves the ability to shift angles at key moments, back and forth in time, and between different characters. The phrase “bearings and distances” comes from the protagonist’s youthful employment as a surveyor. It serves a realist purpose in acquainting us with the geography of Gallatin. More symbolically, it refers to the narrator’s method of surveying personal relationships, and it supplies an elegant framing device for the massive structure of the whole.

Race relations are at the heart of this sometimes shocking book. Arbery’s success in capturing the essence of humanity across racial lines has many sources. He has a sure ear for dialect and he writes as a nakedly honest son of the South. He knows the people, the schools, the football teams, the churches, the restaurants, the police, and the economy. All this helps to sharpen the surface of the novel and to support its intricate plotting. In the background, though, there is the Bible and a literary tradition reaching back to Homer. Arbery nourishes his soil with that tradition–biblical, epic–which provides the characters with a moral ground on which to live and move and have their being, unmolested by the thought police and other nagging impositions that can dampen an author’s imagination. He is a risk-taker whom some might brand as hyper-masculine. He explores the hard reality of the male’s desire for the female, and he rewards us by noticing how our sexuality actually works. Do these dangerous sexual tendencies carry across racial lines? Are they more important to our mutual understanding than the politics of the Twitterverse? To ask these questions is to face some of Arbery’s central choices as a writer. And to answer them, we must confront both metaphysical axes of our existence—the horizontal axis of this life, and the vertical axis that reaches into the cosmos.

Religious writers need ways of getting at the vertical. In her overrated novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson keeps the sky low and stays strictly on the politically orthodox flatlands of the horizontal. By contrast, Arbery scales the necessary heights. He can charge his writing with allegory, with a universal history that draws both on Christianity and on myth. Or he can spark out the poetic potential of prose with hypnotic rhythm and imagery, as in the following passage, where Braxton Forrest is lying in bed, recovering from a concussion:

He was a flock of birds over a field—a single, lovely, extemporaneous creature of air—like a tree whose leaves all turn their undersides at once in the wind—changing direction at some internal impulse, flying this way, upwards, and then sideways in an improvising, paradisal rearrangement of himself like the notes of music, never losing coherence, never entirely, not even when all the birds together settled back into that tree that had let them all go …

Arbery is not the type of craftsman to use three dashes in a single sentence carelessly. Here the effect is akin to a Mobius strip, where the contours of experience have shifted, turning the inside into the outside, as a more primitive consciousness comes to the fore.

At the opposite end of the vertical axis, Arbery deploys recurring visionary passages of “gray women,” liminal beings who bear an affinity to the Moirae, the Graiae, the Fates, and other archaic goddesses of time immemorial. Forrest shares the creepy knowledge of these divine old women with other characters who are together weaving the web of their shared destiny, described by the character Hermia (whose name points allegorically to Hermes) as not “a plan, exactly, but a large, unfolding, unsayable, intention.” Although Forrest is last glimpsed taking solace in an icon of “the Virgin holding a child who seemed to be made of fire and air,” the chthonic goddesses remain a subtext and psychological reality.

The old myths have power here, as does Christianity, which takes its place as their historical fulfillment. There is nothing triumphalist or crowing in this viewpoint: it is mature and fully achieved. Arbery is, moreover, a student of genetics, and he does not propose for a moment to take shelter in the past. The scientific understanding of the X chromosome as the matrix of the Y chromosome, the fact that Eve does not come from Adam’s rib, but that (in fact) the male emerges from a female embryo, is thoroughly in keeping with the subterranean discoveries of this daring and masterful book.  

Lee Oser is a novelist and professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross.