“The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, Seek simplicity and distrust it.”
Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature
The middle is often lost. For example, in the United States, the coasts take precedent. At the core of Country of Cold are the people of Canada’s middle, told in a series of tales interlocked by short prologues. Whether the characters are in Manitoba or Paris, they have been marked by where they are from, not too many degrees from the desperate temperature of Boys Don’t Cry or Spoonriver Anthology. A multitude of voices, but with a simple controlling “I”, struggle to reveal this unity in mental space.
Country of Cold
Stories of Sex and Death
(Nan A. Talese, An Imprint of Doubleday, A Division of Random House)
Those in urban centers often presume their superiority, their greater stake in humanity and value. Recently, I was in an administrative office in my school and the urban bureaucrat looked at me with the great sympathy reserved for three-legged dogs when she learned that I was from a town in Missouri with a population of only 70,000. In his book, Patterson keeps this sort of reality always in mind and acknowledges that we are forever influenced by where we are from. He also explores the marks that actions and inactions have on us, too, following the currents of mistakes and missed opportunities, not only through the lives of the particular individuals, but also through the lives of others. He writes of people who almost, but not quite, reach beyond middling success, because middling lives can never go beyond where they are from.
Patterson is acutely able to capture the frustration and desperation of his characters. He ties them not only together in place but also in a universal existential flow. Those who invest energy in bettering themselves come to no greater end than those who cling to what ever comes along. Whether they become doctors, or enter into the military for a lack of anything better to do, the characters find themselves trapped beneath a sheet of human ice, which they can never break through.
In many ways the struggle of the book’s characters is epitomized by the story of Sam and Lester. Out of boredom and frustration, they decide that they should attempt to go over Rushing River Falls in a barrel. These characters do anything to change their lives, become more than themselves, and attempt to leave their tragedies behind.
But there is always a peril in denying who and what one is, and harm in ignoring one’s pain. Most of the characters are able to continue with their wounds, but Patterson also show us those who are crushed, throttled back and forth in their minds by the unstoppable flow that surrounds them. They are offered little recourse but to survive, and weather what they must.
The subtitle, Stories of Sex and Death, is a little deceptive. Patterson provides us with both but they are pensive, deliberate at times plodding. There is never the frenetic energy that the words sex and death together popularly imply. Appropriately, there is a repressed quality in the writing, even when more prurient scenes unfold. Although the narrator keeps his distance for the sake of an almost clinical worldview, he provides enough information to form tragedy and urge sympathy.
Country of Cold is not the easiest book to read. Overall, it is interesting but sometimes the stories are too wound around each other to clearly fit in the over-arching narrative. The fact that the narrator drifts from first person to third person to total omniscience also distracts from the integrity of the work. The subject matter and characters are attractive, but sometimes the pace is restricted to a trickle. However, there is no reason for all books to flow at a breakneck speed, and on a whole the strengths overpower the weaknesses of Country of Cold.