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Book review

Between life and a hard place

"The Book of Hard Things," by Sue Halpern, Farrar Straus Giroux, $22, 228 pages.

Published November 25, 2003

The Book of Hard Things

There are a lot of hard things in the world. Rocks and minerals. Concrete and bone. Mountain. Granite. Iron. But the hardest thing in the world is a hard life.

The Book of Hard Things, a luminous first novel by the already acclaimed nonfiction writer Sue Halpern, concerns the hard lives of the poverty-stricken residents of Stover, a fictional small town in the mountains, where the haves keep weekend getaway homes in a part of town called Whisper Notch and the have-nots live in trailers in the part called Poverty. Cuzzy Gage, who is not quite 18 when the story begins, is of the latter group: a descendent of immigrants who came to America a 100 years ago with dreams of building a new world, only to find ground too full of rocks for farming.

As the story begins, we meet him asleep on the shores of Stover Lake, homeless, jobless, his mother long-since dead, his father long-since committed to an insane asylum, and an ex-girlfriend who won't speak to him and raising the son she won't allow him to see; in short, a boy with all the cards stacked against him.

Into Cuzzy's world comes Tracy Edwards, a New York City teacher in his 30s who has come to Stover to perform a labor of love: to assemble the archives of a friend who has died, it is implied but never stated, from AIDS. Well, certainly, Algernon (Algie) Black - an ethnomusicologist who amassed a large, disorganized collection of music, trivia, instruments and cultural ephemera from around the world - died too young and he was gay. Now Tracy, who was Algie's friend but not his lover, has come to catalog what his friend left behind.

Though Tracy and Cuzzy seem unlikely candidates for friendship, each in his own way needs the other. Tracy, grieving and adrift, needs to save someone. And Cuzzy needs to be saved. For more than anything else, what Tracy Edwards becomes soon after his arrival in Stover is a Good Samaritan pressed into service by the well-meaning local minister, Jason Trimble. But his mission, to save Cuzzy Gage from himself, turns out to be an illustration of what is perhaps the hardest fact of all: no good deed goes unpunished.

Indeed, the biggest tragedy in this book of very hard things, is the extent to which people's ignorance of one another and themselves contributes to their suffering. This is played out within Cuzzy Gage's own psyche, between Cuzzy and Crystal (the mother of his child), through Tracy's history with Algie, and between Cuzzy and Tracy. It is as if there is an inchoate pain and suffering that runs like bedrock under the lives of all whose feet touch ground in Stover, and it is not until the novel's gruesome conclusion that it becomes all too plain.

Halpern portrays the hardscrabble lives of the poor and ignorant with passion and grace, achieving in the end a probing exploration of what Cuzzy's father tells Jason Trimble is the main theological question in life. Which is not evil, but hardness.

-- Reviewer Mindi Dickstein lives in New Jersey and is currently writing lyrics for the Broadway-bound musical, Little Women.

[Last modified November 24, 2003, 12:08:10]

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