A Sound Like Thunder

Sep 22, 2006

Like The Poet of Tolstoy Park, Brewer's first book set in 1925 Idaho, A Sound Like Thunder is set in Fairhope, AL, but this time in 1941-42, at the opening of WWII.

Sonny Brewer?s first novel, The Poet of Tolstoy Park, published only two years ago, was a wonderful success, a thoughtful, calm, intelligent book. Brewer very freely fictionalized the life of Henry Stuart, a middle-aged man with T.B., who came from Canyon County, Idaho, in 1925, to die, but instead built a round house of cement blocks and lived in it for many, many years.

Like The Poet of Tolstoy Park, A Sound Like Thunder is set in Fairhope, AL, but this time in 1941-42, at the opening of WWII.

The protagonist, Rove MacNee, is sixteen and seventeen years old during this period, a tempestuous, anxious time for him as well as for the country. Rove, real name Rover, was named by his father after a favorite dog, a ?beloved shining black Labrador retriever that drowned in the wind-tossed waves of Mobile Bay while chasing a wounded mallard.? I have loved dogs, but I have never named any of my children after them, and I think it is fair to say that this suggests that his father is a little, shall we say, insensitive.

Rove?s father, Dominus MacNee, is Captain of the Mary Foster, a fifty-foot coastal schooner. He drinks and is violent toward his wife and his two sons. Rove remembers the very day his father ?ceased any effort to hide his drinking.? And after that day, Rove recalls, ?he first swung his fist into my face.?

One would think by page two that this was going to be a novel of drunken child abuse, and it partly is. Dominus?the name itself suggests domineering, if not tyrannical?is a self-styled patriot, but actually a drunken bigot. Dominus attacks Joseph Unruh, a local German immigrant, with a knife, it seems because the Captain believes Unruh is a Nazi spy, but we learn it may be he suspects Unruh of having an affair with his wife, Lillian. There is no evidence either for Unruh?s spying or for an affair, aside from some tender hand-holding, and Rove?s mom could really use a sympathetic friend.

The novel has its strengths, of course. Fairhope is again beautifully evoked. Rove repairs and sails a small sloop. He throws a mullet net for fish off the local piers; he walks and observes the shoreline, the birds, the weather, the sunsets. Brewer knows and loves his Fairhope and can render it well.

Rove gets a girlfriend, Anna Pearl, an almost unbelievably charming and understanding girl, and the book is part coming-of-age novel. Rove and Anna Pearl are virtually Adam and Eve in this Eastern Shore paradise. They are both students at the Organic School of Fairhope, with its extraordinary experiment in education. In fact, Henry Stuart teaches rug-weaving at the school on Tuesdays.

The Mississippi artist Walter Anderson also makes a cameo appearance, but this doesn?t go as well. Anderson was a picturesque, Whitmanesque figure, full of wisdom and oddness, but is used here as a kind of Delphic oracle. He actually deserves his own book.

Rove himself is sometimes unrealistically learned. In two pages, Rove quotes to himself Walt Whitman, Shakespeare?s Hamlet, and Descartes. This went down better with Henry Stuart, who was older, well read, and of a philosophical mind. Here it seems more like undigested gobs.

The major problem here is that the parts of this novel?the coming-of-age story, the drunken abuse story, the saltwater adventure story, and the historical novel of the tensions in America in the period leading up to WWII?don?t fit together harmoniously. One thread is dropped and another taken up. Was there adultery or not? Was Unruh a spy? Why was Dominus not punished for his homicidal attack on Unruh? The ending, when it comes, does not provide a satisfactory resolution.

A Sound Like Thunder seems to have been rushed to publication. A thoughtful rewriting would have yielded a much better novel. This book is not as good as The Poet of Tolstoy Park, I am sorry to say, but I am also willing to bet it is not as good as Brewer's next novel will be.