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Chasing Dreams: Far Flung Thoughts and Alternate Endings in The Far Music

A Review of Earle Labor’s The Far Music (Dallas: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist U, 2016)

That The Far Music is a boy’s tale, or rather, the bildungsroman of a boy blooming into manhood, does not diminish the impact of the story. Labor’s extensive and finely drawn interest in both the educational and class systems of his day make the memoir compelling. His connection of nature, humanities (literature), and social justice keeps him from seeming self-absorbed and narrow-minded and seems, in fact, not only retro, throwing back to Thoreau, but also prescient—looking forward to the his own career as a Jack London scholar and to the field of environmental humanities.  The narrator’s mature voice treats both the characters and the country—both naïve with more vim and vigor than wisdom—with compassion.

That two English majors—inspired by Thoreau—would set out from Dallas Texas, travel north and west across the continent into Canada—working odd jobs along the way in order to spend a year in a cabin they would build seems like a privileged kids’ improbable day dream in this age. That is why Labor’s rendition of just such a plan—drawn from his own memory and the notes of his companion, Pink Lindsey--is important. His was not the fancy of the privileged but rather the polishing of one facet of the American Dream, as a working class guy who went to a vocational high school finds himself—through university education--able to meld working class roots with literary aspirations into the adventure of a lifetime.

Labor relates how the years 1945 – 1950 were defined by the country’s World War II victory and influenced by radio and film. He describes a sanguine period, simultaneously self-congratulatory, nostalgic, and expectant, an epoch entranced and entrenched with/in its own “auroral haze” (xvii). In short, this memoir could be paired beautifully with James Lee Burke’s post-war Dave Robicheaux novels or with Kerouac’s On the Road—a more rambunctious memoir from the same decade. Labor names the period, “the Era of Bright Expectations (xvii),” and with the increasing access to higher education and the promise of greater social equality that education promised, it is easy to see why the era seemed special.

As a chronicle of its time, Labor’s text is appropriately full of name-dropping—from classmates, to football heroes, to academic advisors and professors, to college presidents. His extroverted embrace of both people and experiences during the road trip gives the text an immediacy and exuberance.

It was Labor who proposed “The Plan” (28).” At the end of his undergraduate career, he craved “adventure” as he decided whether to continue with academics or enter the business world (28). In his vision, Labor saw the two eating “fish and game,” with “time for relaxing and communing with Mother Nature” (29).  His friend Pink is the one concerned about finances, but Labor reassures him with the plan to follow and work the wheat harvest (20). Labor admits, “We hadn’t a clue about our limitations. That would come later” (30).

Those clues and some wisdom do come in the next ten chapters, as three friends, Howie (who lasted until September), Pink (who remained about a month longer), and Labor (who lasted longest—into Kansas City’s December) head out.  While Labor tells a great tale, he also intersperses reflection, his own and Pink’s (in italics).  I believe that in the final tally a reckoning would be that with the slow and subtle attrition of time the pen shall me mightier than the sword, but of one thing I’m fairly certain: he shovel is mightier than both” (59).

In “Dream’s End,” Labor recounts how he and Pink returned the following year to work a second summer in Oklahoma. That trip and the harvest were less inspirational than the first, “Pink and I finished our final harvesting job the last week in June and headed back to Dallas—not to Canada—thus bringing final closure to any remote possibility of resuming our idyllic escape to the northland wild” (221).

Labor laments their dream’s end, which “coincided” with the “traumatic collapse” of the idea of permanent peace, “an even greater illusion” (229).  During the same week that the guys headed home, Truman deployed U. S. forces to help South Korea.

 “Last Refrain,” the memoir’s final chapter, reveals the pair’s ultimate destinations: Pink, who suffered PTSD and other health issues, settled in Gilmer, Texas, worked construction, and wrote on the side, while Labor went on to enjoy a long career at Centenary College in Shreveport, “embracing lifetime adventure with my soul mate and family—complemented by sharing my love of literature in the classroom with bright young minds and in publications with my professional colleagues (224).

Earle Labor’s The Far Music (Dallas: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist U, 2016) is memoir at its best. It offers a slice of life: a picture of the times and a mind-tap into a period.

Reviewed by M. L. Byrd

M. L. Byrd is an associate professor English at Virginia State and editor of NOLA DIASPORA. One of her favorite responsibilities is book reviewing!