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[430] All the Little Live Things – Wallace Stegner

” I find it hard to reconstruct how that intimacy happened. One day we had never heard of them, days later we were close friends. All our lives Ruth and I have tended to protect ourselves from people and cherish our privacy, and we have been more likely to reject individuals peremptorily—the way I suppose I reject Peck—than to like them on sight. But we caught Marian’s affectionateness as if it had been a communicable disease. ” (III 93)

Joe Allston, a retired cantankerous literary agent, and his wife Ruth, move int a five-acre ranch in northern California to escape everyday life after the death of their 37-year-old son, Curtis. The elderly couple settles in their Eden and lead a quiet life until the emergence of two events that shakes them out of their quietude. When a manipulative young man on a motorcycle asks to camp on his land, out of a sense of repressed guilt over the death of his son, Joe begrudgingly gives him consent. But what irretrievably provokes his feeling is Marian Catlin, who moves into a nearby cottage with her husband and child. Charming but tough-minded, the defender of “every little live things” broaches many a debate with Joe about biological perfectionism and sacredness of life. She relishes the wild, the untamed, and natural beauty and believes there is no evil forces in nature. This inevitably challenges Joe’s meticulous and fastidious ways of maintaining his Eden; but most unexpectedly, that Marian lives generously and unflinchingly, in the face of a terminal illness, forces the old man to confront his own cowardice in hiding from his pain.

Trying to explain myself, I told him about my own life, including some shameful episodes, but all that did was revive a lot of unhappiness that I had lived down and put aside years before, and remind me of old guilts that were not unlike Curt’s. Thinking filled my days with boredom and my nights with self-loathing. Out of my son’s death I plucked the conviction of my own imperfection and failure, and yet I could not name the ways I might have taken so as not to fail. (IV 188)

As much as he wants to begin afresh in his Eden, Joe is gnawing at his own guilt—he judges himself for judging his own son. The arrival of these strangers brings the nudge from the past, discomfort from an unhealed wound, and also a prick of conscience. Joe has a considerable distaste for the good life as prescribed by the bearded hippie Jim Peck, but he stretches forbearance toward him because he reminds him of his own son, who has wretchedly thrown away his life. In Jim Peck, who has taken advantage of his trust and violated his property, Joe sees a second chance—some sort of opportunity for redemption. But what makes Peck hard for Joe to bear is his own foolishness made manifest in the young man.

In the blunt minute when she announced his death, I suppose we felt it necessary to deny, doubt, comfort. If we didn’t shed tears, we held them back only to spare her. She herself did not cry. She wore one unchanging expression: fortitude had been turned on and left burning. (V 252)

All the Little Live Things is an intense read. The vividness of the language—embracing regret, fear, death, and love—is what gives the book its nauseously poignant edge. It’s like a clock ticking away to an inevitable death. Yet it’s also inspiring because Marian, regrettably short that her life is, has taught the aging narrator the stupidity of the attempt to withdraw and be free of trouble. She teaches him that it is a reduction of humanity to hide of pain and avoid suffering—our own or others. It’s a beautiful book, full of presence of place that reminds us nature’s power and vastness. While Stegner allures to the outcome of the novel at the very beginning, there are details not revealed until these strangers become involved with the narrator, whose buried feelings they arouse. The staggered way of storytelling enhances the mood and allows us to see how Joe comes to terms with his feelings and his past.

345 pp. Penguin Contemporary American Fiction. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]