Mon May 2, 2005
The Poet of Tolstoy Park
A man who is dying of tuberculosis discovers how he wants to live the last year of his life.
By Don Noble
There really was a poet of Tolstoy Park.
In Montrose, Alabama, there sits a round house, built of hand-made concrete blocks. It was erected, alone, by Henry James Stuart, the man who was known as the ?Hermit of Montrose? but was not actually much of a hermit at all.
Sonny Brewer?s fictional Henry, like his real-life counterpart, is a man in his middle 60s, living in Idaho, who is told he has tuberculosis, not a contagious variety, and has but one year to live.
His doctor advises that he will live perhaps a little longer and die a little more comfortably in a warm climate.
Henry gives all his earthly belongings to his two sons and his best friend, the preacher Webb, and moves to Fairhope, Alabama.
Henry is coughing, he is ill, he is dying, and of course that focuses the mind wonderfully.
A thoughtful and spiritual man, Henry attended Mount Union Baptist Seminary but never preached and, after his wife?s death four years earlier, even stopped attending church. Henry is spiritual in a personal, transcendental, Thoreauvian way.
Under a sentence of death, Henry must decide how to live. He first decides that he will live barefoot, in touch with the earth, and gives away his boots.
Once he has arrived in Baldwin County, he moves onto his 10 acres of property, names it Tolstoy Park, and resolves to live each day to the fullest, but not in a carpe diem, wine, women, and song kind of way.
He chooses, for example, to give up, as if for Lent, reading Tolstoy and writing in his journal, which he loves. The sacrifice, and it is a real one, enables him, in fact forces him, to a heightened awareness of his surroundings.
Not captured by the world of print, in novel or essay, he hears the birds and the wind in the trees. By being fully present, here, now, Henry lives eternity in every hour.
Henry also knows that the work of the hands frees the mind, and he sets about building a home, which will be of hand-poured concrete blocks, strong enough to last for centuries, even though he may not live long enough to sleep in it for a single night.
And his house will be round, for Henry has taken to heart the wisdom of Black Elk, who said, ?The Power of the World always works in a circle. . . . The wind in its greatest power whirls . . . birds make their home in a circle, for theirs is the same religion as ours.?
Henry must come to terms with dying, and what may be the greater challenge, he must help those others in his life?his sons, friends, and now neighbors in Alabama?to come to terms with his dying.
He decides at first that he must live and work alone, but then, as time passes, becomes hospitable, finally amassing, over time, 1,139 signatures in his guest book, including Clarence Darrow?s, six times.
Set in Alabama, The Poet of Tolstoy Park is certainly Southern literature, but of a kind rarely seen since Walker Percy.
This novel contains no gothic characters with stumps for arms, or harelips, or mentally retarded characters, or albinos, or misfit killers, or mysterious recluses.
This novel contains no sex at all?but there is a lot of love, and no cruelty or savagery or even violence, except for a couple of vicious hurricanes that move through Baldwin County.
The Poet of Tolstoy Park is that rarest of creatures, the novel of ideas. It is calm, smart, peaceful, thoughtful, wise. But it has the drama and tension that all fully-lived life has. After all, we?re all dying all the time and we know it. There is no question about how it will end. The question is, how shall we live until then, and The Poet of Tolstoy Park is a fine and entertaining place to go for some inspiration on that subject.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.