Anthony Trollope, The Warden
I finished Damon Knight's The Man in the Tree earlier this week. The more I think about it, the more I like it.
Knight, as I mentioned in the post where I said I'd picked this up at a used book store, is best known for the story "To Serve Man," though he was well known in the science fiction world. While The Man In The Tree isn't perfect, it does some things I find very interesting and enjoyable.(I believe the rest of this is relatively spoiler free. Good luck tracking down a copy if you want to read it, though.)
The story focuses on a man named Gene Anderson, tracing his life from when he was born in the mid-1940s until the mid-1980s (when the book was published). Gene always had two things that separated him from other people: he was exceptionally tall, and he had the power to feel other worlds, grabbing duplicates of items from another universe and doing other strange tricks. Interestingly, the oddities affect his life about equally.
When Gene is nine, three older boys begin picking on him. In the struggle, he accidentally kicks one of them -- the son of the small town's police chief -- out a window and to his death. Gene realizes that there will be serious repercussions and runs away. The police chief, Tom Cooley, spends the rest of the novel trying to find and kill him. Because of Gene's special powers, he can survive by himself. He raids a scout camp ground, and duplicates all the food and supplies he needs to survive in an abandoned cabin by the woods, by trees he finds unusual. But Cooley catches up with him and he escapes, leaving Cooley's accomplice dead, though again that's not what Gene intended.
While the pursuit is always a factor for Anderson, it's not always the main factor. With no home or anchor in life, he tries to figure out what to do. He goes to an art school in Los Angeles, hangs out with bohemians in New York, becomes a circus giant, and much more..
My largest complaint with the book is with what I guess I should call the climax. It might, if you go by that basic "intro, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion" formula actually be the falling action. I think the end structure got somewhat muddled. But it's when the Big Things happen; when Statements are made. It didn't work for me; the scope and tone were too different from the rest of the book.
Though the plot didn't completely satisfy, there were many things I liked.
Knight was not afraid to keep things understated. Throughout the book, I kept expecting someone to bring up the Norse myth of Odin and the tree, an obvious parallel for the title and a someone who is more than a man growing up and looking for purpose. (It does, however reference other relevant legends.) In another example, at one point a woman tells Gene his fortune with Tarot Cards. After that, Knight doesn't feel the need to hit us over the head with Gene's destiny. Perhaps that's why the ending fails for me; it goes from understated to putting all the cards on the table.
Everyone acts intelligently. Have you noticed when reading a novel, people talk about literature and poetry? In real life, television, movies, or contemporary culture are more likely to be discussed. I understand why; in real conversation, you don't want to lose your audience. Suppose I want to talk about satire. People watching Tina Fey know she's satirizing Sarah Palin. If I start talking about Anthony Trollope's character Dr. Pessimist Anticant, most people will not know that I'm talking about a play on Thomas Carlyle. Since "The Man In The Tree" is literature, the characters discuss lots of arts and literature. It makes me feel cultured to read that. Even characters who aren't well read don't behave stupidly. The sheriff of a hick county doesn't buy Cooley's story that Gene "just happened" to shoot Cooley's friend in the heart, though he can't prove otherwise. Cooley uses some clever techniques to track down Gene over the years.
There are a few passages that I just find great, some for reasons I can't identify. One example:
They went to Notre Dame de Paris, in whose vast shadowy vault the rose windows stared down like celestial mandalas. Gene was moved beyond speech. A woman near them was talking loudly and angrily in German.
"Everyone hates the Germans," Claudina remarked afterward, when they were sitting in the sunlight at a brasserie across the street from the cathedral."
"Because they invaded France?"
"No, just because they are German."
In short, I like The Man in the Tree because Knight respects my intelligence as a reader. He's willing to assume I'll figure things out, rather than whacking me over the head with it.