by Carter Martin
Xlibris Press, 2007
Carter Martin’s debut novel Kelbrn is the story of a modern day Odysseus, Miles Kelley, whose wanderings not only take the reader through the first fifty years of twentieth century America but also across America itself—from Wisconsin, to New York, to North Carolina, and finally California. Miles’ journey from childhood (age 8) to late mid-life parallels the movement of modern American from rural to industrial, from dairy farms to textile mills, from East to West, from idealism to disillusionment.
The saga of Miles Kelley, Irish Catholic grandson of immigrants, and his family (mother, father, twin brother Lars, sister Bea, and younger brother Owen) is an engaging tale about a young man growing up along with the adolescent United States. Although Miles is an imaginary character, the novel is played out against the historical events of the first half of the 20th century, taking the reader through two world wars, the stock market crash, the Great Depression, and even the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Both boy, Miles and Lars, lie about their age to join World War I, but Lars joins first. One of the most poignant chapters in the novel (Chapter 5) juxtaposes a jaunty letter from the youthful Miles against the ruminations of his twin brother Lars in the trenches of France. Miles’ letter is chatty and optimistic, full of news about family, school, and his social life. Lars’ interior monologue is a cry of anguish from one who has seen first hand the horrors of war. “I take an oath on the certainty of this mud that I will never tell you what it is to be lonely in hell, will never come back from this grave to let you smell the stench and touch the filth and count the kinds of vermin.”
In the tradition of his literary prototypes, Stephen Dedalus and Eugene Gant, Miles rejects both father and church and sets out to find himself in world from which he is becoming increasingly alienated. The three women in his life—Maggie, the love of his youth, Cissy (his Circe), the feminist gynecologist he marries in New York City, and Malinda (his ironic Penelope) whom he calls India and with whom he has a family—are like spools around which Miles winds and unwinds the thread of his life. The motif of doomed love is echoed again and again in the novel through references to Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and Jim and Jewel (Conrad's Lord Jim).
In the midst of the chaos and confusion of his life, Miles is driven by an urge to make order, to impose form on formlessness. Although the novel is clearly a bildungsroman, the growth of a protagonist from childhood to maturity, Kelbrn is also a kind of kunstlerroman, a novel about the development of the artist in society. Throughout his life, Miles writes poetry and is consumed by the thought that "nothing is in order." He asks himself, while thinking of Conrad's character Jim, if defiance is the "profound truth of isolation and the redemption of it."
Two symbols in the novel provide the only solace and the only sense of connection that Miles has to the past: the windmill and the banjo. One provides water for a parched land and the other provides music for a parched soul. Both the windmill that he had to leave when his family left the farm in Wisconsin and the banjo that his father gave him are each a talisman for Miles. The windmill is his touchstone for the land of his childhood, and the banjo's fragile strings connect him with his dead father.
At one point Miles believes he has finally succeeded in making things right. He restores an old plantation which he calls Kelbrn (his Tara) in North Carolina, marries again, erects a windmill, and rears a family. He has an "eccentric devotion" to the plantation where briefly he is happy. He even becomes wealthy as an accidental inventor, an ironic twist, succeeding where his father, a deliberate inventor, had failed.
Carter Martin's many years as teacher and literary scholar have served him well. Kelbrn is a tapestry of literary references and allusions, some direct some oblique. In his search for meaning, Miles becomes a scrutinizer of faces. He recalls the haiku by Ezra Pound “In a Station of the Metro” as he looks at the sea of faces on Fifth Avenue, but they are not still and implacable "faces on a wet black bough.” They are full of motion and discontent. He seeks respite in the Metropolitan Museum where he loses himself in the face of Mlle. Charlotte in David's famous painting, Mlle. Charlotte du Val d’Ognes . Temporarily, Charlotte becomes Miles' Beatrice, and the quest continues.
Miles consoles himself by writing "grille" poems—patterned poems in which another poem is imbedded. The novel itself appears to be laid over the grille or grid of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. In Eliot’s poem, the vivifying water that is needed to fertilize the dead land never comes. There is the rumble of distant thunder and a prayer for peace, but at the end we have only the fisher king, wounded and waiting for rain.
Kelbrn is a kind of American Nibelungenlied, full of sturm und drang and concluding with the twilight of the gods. The novel begin with the loss of Eden, and we are left with either Albert Camus (“there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”) or Walker Percy (“how to live from one ordinary minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.”)
Who is Miles Kelley and what is he searching for? Is he the tortured and alienated artist, the disillusioned idealist, Parsifal seeking some unattainable grail, or is he, as Conrad's Jim fears he might be, a moral coward. Like the character of Jim, we have difficulty drawing a conclusion about Miles Kelley. Will he ever be able to "make something right out of something terribly wrong” ?
----Penne J. Laubenthal