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Moving 'Farther Along' 

Harington's latest hero turns his back on the present.

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The writing of Fayetteville author Donald Harington ranks among Arkansas's most precious natural resources. His classic novel, “The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks,” is required reading for any clear-thinking Arkie, and each successive novel has given us more cause to be proud and the rest of the country reason to be jealous.

His newest is “Farther Along” (the Toby Press, hardcover, $24.95) and is set, like most of his books, in a remote hamlet of the Ozark Mountains. Harington uses a mournful gospel standard, “Farther Along,” as the book's epigraph and a counterpoint to his characters' obsession with the past. “Farther along,” goes the song, “we'll know all about it. Farther along we'll understand why.”

The song embodies the evangelical instruction to overcome life's hardships by staying focused on the heavenly reward to come. In the world of Harington, however, it becomes something else altogether.

And while he provides his usual rich story, he also makes his readers work for it. Most of the characters remain nameless and a variety of speakers and tenses weigh in. A French horn narrates part of the book and there's a moonshiner who has talking fingers. The plot itself has more twists than an Ozarks pig trail.

In spite of the setting, this isn't just an Arkansas story. It's more a midsummer-night symphony played out in an enchanted garden of earthy delights, teeming with nymphs and sprites and humans being human. All are watched over by Kind, the god of kindred spirits and base emotions, who interacts with the characters in various ways. In this powder keg of down-home mythology lies a thoroughly engaging tale.

We start, innocently enough, with the curator of a big-city museum whose postmodern lifestyle has reduced him to therapy bait. He has an upholsterer create a life-size model of his ex-wife and enjoys a blissful but quiet relationship of two years. Finally, he forsakes the doll for a live girl but this isn't working out either.

He decides to move back to his home state of Arkansas and live like the Bluff-dwellers, Indians who inhabited the northern part of the state in ancient times. Taking up residence in a cavern near an almost ghost-town, Bluff-dweller, as he is called in the book, exists for several years on the meat of animals he kills with an atlatl (the ancient weapon of choice) and a gushing spring of Ozark moonshine.

Bluff-dweller only wants to be left alone, but eventually has to interact with the people of the nearby hamlet, including some of the womenfolk. In fact, they are all that stand between him and his rapidly failing liver. And, after six years of trying to escape his own self, Bluff-dweller decides he hasn't done all that well at it and could use the company.

One of his new friends is an elderly widow and former postmistress of the hamlet. The other is a mysterious young woman who seems to be the reincarnation of the mistress of the ex-governor who founded the town. The plot thickens considerably as the stories of these two women unfold.

Living up to his reputation as one of the country's quirkiest writers, Harington likes to play with our perceptions and tweak the reality dial all the way to the final chapter. Like Bluff-dweller, the two women also are trapped in the past; ultimately the book is a group session of sorts about finding the path to wholeness.

Harington's main theme is unerringly clear. We shouldn't retreat into the past, even if we're making little headway otherwise. To underscore the point, the book ends with its narrative in the future tense. There's no going back.

As one character notes, the past can only offer temporary refuge from the dross of contemporary life. Besides, the song promises that we'll understand it, farther along. Or, as the flatlanders like to say these days, going forward.

-- Rod Lorenzen


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