Can Compassion Be Enough in the End?:
A Review of Each Vagabond By Name by Margo Orlando Littell (UNO Press, 2016)
Margo Littell grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, the setting of this first novel that serves notice that we should look forward to her future work. Whatever else I might say about Each Vagabond By Name, Littell kept me reading--despite my sometimes negative reactions to one-dimensional characters and narrative missteps. Her voice is strong, and, despite its flaws, the novel is vividly entertaining and worth thinking about in terms of deeper implications about place and human connections and sources of identity.
There is much to admire in this first book, but, as is the case with many first novels, it is sometimes uneven: it can be captivating; at other moments it strikes me as wrong-footed. I started this review by mentioning its setting because in this aspect I suspect Littell has followed the old dictum to write about what you know, and the result in terms of atmosphere is striking. This imagined (captured?) place is the strongest aspect of the novel; the setting is virtually the novel’s central character, and it shapes the entire work. Littell has made “the familiar strange” in her portrait of this small Pennsylvania town. If Littell has truly embodied the rural Pennsylvania landscape and culture where she grew up, it is a place I am happy to know only in the pages of her novel. A scary thought is that perhaps it is more than a benighted world to drive by at 70 m.p.h. on the interstate; perhaps Littell would have us see it as a microcosm of America, a stark, dark, ingrown, xenophobic, and claustrophobic microcosm. The people of Shelk, Pennsylvania, Littell’s “sleepy town,” would, I suspect, overwhelmingly support Donald Trump could they vote in our current presidential election.
Littell takes us into this world to explore the effects of “us versus them” psychology -- played out on personal as well as community levels. The characters we get to know best (and that is one of the novel’s problems: we don’t really get to know well-rounded characters) are Zachariah Ramsey and Stella Vale, Ramsey’s one-time lover and now “closest” friend. Both have been stunted by ancient personal traumas. Both are virtual outsiders in their own town even though Ramsey has been the local bar owner for decades and Vale has lived there her entire life. And both have mainly fled from the potential of intimacy they at one time shared.
Ramsey’s story, one he tries desperately to keep to himself, is that as a young soldier in Vietnam he failed as a warrior, not in battle, but in being be disabled in a bar fight when he fell in “love” with a prostitute while on leave. He is discharged and lives with his shame about his own foolishness and about letting down his comrades; this shame disables him for decades, and subsequently it causes him to fail again and again - first, as husband and a father and, later, as a lover for Vale. His one success is, ironically, as a bartender who succeeds because he is withdrawn from any real contact with his customers. He succeeds because his customers, the men of the town, are similarly unable and unwilling to face their own lives honestly, who are similarly locked in shame and pride-driven macho isolation.
The women in Shelk are marginally more self-aware than Ramsey’s male clientele, but they are frozen and ineffectual in the face of their men--because, along with its other cultural oppressions, the town is also deeply sexist. The one woman who strives for a degree of agency and individuality, Kitty, does so in ways that drive her husband mad and precipitate the book’s violent crisis.
Stella Vale is drawn to Ramsey because she is shut down, too - over the kidnapping of her infant daughter by her former husband sixteen years earlier. Vale and Ramsey are drawn together because both live with unresolved pain and shame and hopelessness, and that common ground is not able sustain more than a tenuous, distant camaraderie. It is not a ground for lovers.
These hurting people -- and the entire town -- are challenged to break out of their calcified personas (or to retreat into even more destructive versions of those personas) by the arrival of true outsiders, a gang of homeless teenage runaways who break into homes to steal valuables and sometimes food. The novel’s chapters are by introduced by brief narratives of the series of break-ins around the town, an effective structure that keeps dramatic tension high throughout the novel. That gang is basically lost teens dominated by an older criminal, Emilian, who is violent, abusive, and merciless.
Pitching the movie rights, one might say that in Each Vagabond By Name an even more dysfunctional Richard Russo town--as in Nobody’s Fool or, even better, the recent Everybody’s Fool--meets Oliver Twist. The protagonists of Each Vagabond are as sympathetically dysfunctional as several of Russo’s characters, though Vagabond lacks Russo’s humor (as wince inducing as it often is). Littell’s antagonist, Emilian, is as single-mindedly evil as Dickens’s Bill Sykes, though perhaps not quite as dangerous in the end. The climatic violence (you had to know it was coming) is not instigated by Emilian but by the town’s xenophobic and racist fears. The victim of the violence is one of the wandering teens, JT (at least she didn’t name him JC), the only character who comes close to embodying the romantic idea evoked by Littell’s title and epigraphic song of the vagabond answering a deep, barely understood, and organic wanderlust. In this sense, he is the novel’s most innocent character, though he is a thief, and, as such, serves as a sacrificial lamb and as the catalyst for redemption of the town as whole and Ramsey and Vale in particular. Can compassion--compassion toward the lost and wandering, toward ourselves and our own and our companions’ shame--be enough in the end? I’m not sure Littell convinces me, but she makes me want to believe it can be.
Reviewed by Michael McClure
Michael Francis McClure is an
Associate Professor of English at
Virginia State University.
One of the editors of NOLA DIASPORA,
he has also co-authored an apocalyptic novel, 2020, with Scott A. Leonard.
Their nom de plume is Frank McArthur.