There are few other signs of life. In the evening, after a day of work and nerves awry, he’d return trembling to the cabinet and slowly pull a curtain around his consciousness where he’d sit hidden from all of us. Out of the superabundancy of words written by Wolfe (the original manuscript for Look Homeward, Angel contained more than 350,000; October Fair, a portion of which would become Of Time and the River, had more than a million), you can take almost any single paragraph and in it you will find an honesty of perception, recollection, and description that, in my opinion, is rare in the catalog of American letters. My mother – now living alone on the hill – walks out behind me and says, ‘What’s wrong?’ I smile and say, ‘Nothing,’ and we retreat inside.
Phillip Lewis’s The Barrowfields is published by Sceptre Books. When my daughter was still a child, I left, heavy-hearted, and went away to college, and then later to law school. I walk out onto the porch overlooking the wide pasture as it slopes down to a faraway fence, the grass wet and dappled with yellow. Ashamed, and perceiving judgment and opprobrium where likely none existed, I became an outsider, and I’ve never found my way back in again. It was our saving grace, and it would provide the foundation for our view of this life. The millstone swings. You tell yourself, Stand up straight, but it returns, it swings, it’s never far away. Rising in the morning after the sun, he would dress himself in the dark and couldn’t bear to see his own face in the mirror. I did so without any intent to describe the factual circumstances of my youth, or to tell the story of my family, for to do so would have been too close and too familiar. The truth is, I’ve never tried. This is surely apparent in certain parallels that may be obvious to anyone who has read the book and this article. My memories of this remote place as a boy are boundless green and timeless with a night sky of perpetual starlight overhead. She was left alone and longing for a man who never loved her. My daughter and I, she being an outcast by inheritance, found solace and momentary escape from our respective circumstances in this world of books. In reading Wolfe (and Styron and others), I arrived at the conclusion, possibly misguided, that a sincere observation followed by a sincere utterance is the most powerful and effective form of communication – at least for works of fiction. I learned, of course, what so many writers have learned, which is that this task is easier said than done, and nearly impossible to do well. Wolfe believed that the essential job of the writer is to transform life experiences and observations ‘into the terms of poetic and imaginative fact – into the truth of fiction’. But this came later. But innocence is quickly lost. This, all this, was a millstone I would carry. Nevertheless, the book represents a deliberate attempt to transform my life experiences into the truth of fiction, as Wolfe would say. There are, without doubt, memories that cannot be exorcised or banished once and for all, or pushed deep so as not to reappear. The grief and regret he experiences upon leaving home while she stays forlornly behind were, of course, well known to me by experience. He didn’t want to see what he’d become. Time intervened and continued to move, and while we were both waiting for life to bring us together as parent and child, she grew up and much of her childhood was lost to me. At sixteen years old, in this town, and in the context of the lonely house on the hill and a disappearing father, I became an adolescent parent. The trees marking the edge of the pasture are without leaves, and a sense of winter remains. Her mother, who was younger than me, stayed in our hometown for a time, and our daughter stayed with her. This day never came. For example, while there is not an adolescent father and a young, precocious daughter, there is a brother and his young sister, both of whom define their lives, and have their lives defined, by books and the written word. The Barrowfields is, in a manner of speaking, an emotional autobiography, rather than a factual one. With the benefit of hindsight, and reflecting now on how The Barrowfields came to be, I realize that I created the world depicted in the book – a small, insular town in the mountains of North Carolina known as Old Buckram, and places beyond – as a landscape upon which to set a different story, but all of it drawn carefully out of the same black reservoir of experience and emotion. This is especially true when those memories are of home, and home is a place to which you must sometimes return. It stands behind me and tries to see things through my eyes. Upstairs there was a modest library, and downstairs, almost immediately below, was another small library. When I go back to the small mountain town in North Carolina where I grew up, to the house on top of the hill, I feel all the darkness of my youth descend, and it follows me like a shadow while I’m there. This is, I believe, what writers often do. I would visit on weekends, but not all weekends, and not nearly often enough. These malignancies, for which he steadfastly refuses treatment even to this day, have all but stolen his life. I promised her that one day soon, once I’d graduated and found a good job, we’d get a house of our own, and that she’d have her own room, and we’d build a magnificent library to hold all of our books. The writings and writing philosophy of the North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe supplied much of the inspiration for the emotional honesty of the book. In lightening shades, time-weathered mountains in the south and west ascend slowly and lie low and dark against the sky, concealing the horizon and making the world finite and near. A millstone made of memories hangs from your neck. Photograph © Erin Johnson It was a way to lift the millstone, to examine it in the bright light of day, and articulate its weight. And so I set out to write The Barrowfields. It was in this house on the hill that I witnessed my father’s dependent diseases of alcoholism and depression find root and grow like weeds around our family, strangling him over a period of years. A dogwood tree stands alone at the edge of the garden, an abandoned nest and a few early blossoms serving as its only adornments. It bends your neck and slumps your shoulders. When I would come home, I would return to the house on the hill and my daughter and I would sit for hours in the bedroom that she used there, and I would read to her. The house on the hill is a picture of isolation. As he withdrew from life, I watched as my mother unknowingly enabled him, lost him, drove him away, as delusions of a happier past lured him into oblivion and broke her heart time and again until the damage was too great to repair. I wrote The Barrowfields guided by this philosophy, such that the words and passages contained within its pages aspire to portray life in its most genuine and authentic form.