Caroloyn Chute and the Other Maine in Treat Us Like Dogs

Carolyn Chute
Grove Press, 671 pages
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Most visitors to Maine wax rhapsodic over postcard cute towns like Ogunquit, Wiscasset, and Camden, or indulge in retail therapy in Kittery or Freeport. The nose-in-the-air set eschews the hoi polloi for the obscene wealth enclaves of Kennebunkport or Northeast Harbor. Neither group drives more than a few miles inland, though both wonder how Maine ended up with a nut-job like Paul LePage as governor. They've never seen Carolyn Chute's Maine–the postindustrial hopelessness of towns like Lewiston, the lumber mills of Bangor and Lincoln that Global Capital deems "noncompetitive," the empty quadrants that bear only township numbers, or Canadian border whistle stops like Calais that redefine the word dire.  

Chute lives in the "other" Maine. Though she's a renowned author, she and her illiterate second husband live on the poverty line, make do with an outhouse, belong to a militia group, and live among folks who think the Tea Party is a bunch of prissy suburbanites whose ideas of survivalism comes from bad reality TV shows. Not that she's seen such a show; Chute doesn't have a TV, phone, or computer. She also knows that the American class struggle isn't between the haute and petite bourgeoisie, and her view of those who disparage the other Maine is summed by the title of her latest novel.

It's also the book's simmering theme. Chute sets her novels in the semi-fictional town of Egypt, Maine. This one revolves loosely around bearish 39-year-old Gordon St. Onge, known as "The Prophet" to those living in The Settlement. What is The Settlement? Call it where free thinkers-meet-the-frontier. There are loads of women bearing the last name of St. Onge and lots of home-schooled kids, many of whom look like Gordon. Is Gordon a Northeast David Koresh, a pre-reform Mormon, a randy satyr, or just an unorthodox backwoodsman who rails against Peak Oil and Corporate America? Does he even run The Settlement, or is it Claire, the rotund, older Indian woman who was once Gordon's only legal wife? Most of Gordon's neighbors are also poor as church mice; they mostly see him as a little off, but an affable guy who operates sawmills, helps out, and takes in troubled kids who don't spell very well, but know more about the science of solar and wind power than most engineers.

Everything about The Settlement and Gordon is off the grid by polite society's standards, including a manifesto declaring itself "no wing" on the left/right scale. Residents are pro-democracy and anti-government, pro-equality but anti-feminist, pro-gun but anti-NRA, live in poverty yet eat heartily, are self-sufficient but don't isolate themselves, hate banks but watch the cash flow carefully, and hate most technology but in the name of environmentalism. They are serious about freedom–the only non-negotiable rule is no TVs or computers.

In other words, they scare the hell out of "respectable" Mainers for whom any whiff of anarchy means there must be must be something sinister going on. Soon allegations swirl that The Settlement harbors everything from incest and child abuse to Satanism and gun stockpiling. This puts reporter Ivy Morelli, a quirky but spoiled Millennial, on the investigative trail. Will Ivy expose the evils lurking in the woods or succumb to Gordon's magnetism? Her efforts to reveal the "truth" put me in mind of the bungled Island Pond, Vermont religious commune scandal from the 1970s. There are parallels, but much more is afoot in Chute's novel.

Treat us Like Dogs is a sprawling, sometimes clunky novel filled with unusual characters, including several personified forces and objects. How would Television, History, or Mammon speak if they were people? Chute imagines it. There are lots of "secret agents" in the book as well, including a six-year-old black girl and the mysterious "Grays," that might be aliens, or a self-aware collective unconscious, or something akin to Emerson's Over-Soul. A particularly compelling character is 15-year-old Bree Vandermast, a wildly inventive red-tressed artist with an attractive body and a deformed face. Another is feminist professor Catherine, who also orbits around Gordon and makes us wonder if she is the snake in the Garden. And, yes, there are militias.

Chute wisely set the novel in 1999-2000, just before the crooked fall election and 9/11 confirmed a lot of what Gordon said about the world. Treat Us Like Dogs has so many characters that even Chute claims not to know how many. This makes for a parade of intrigue, but a tougher editor would have demanded better flow. (There are parts that probably made more sense in Chute's head than on the page.) Yet this book is unlike anything else you'll read and its fascinations more than compensate for its frustrations. A final thing: the New York Review of Books called its humor "propulsive." Oh dear! There are funny passages, but the humor is black, not haw! haw! (The reference is to Ivy's cloying laugh.) Only a tourist who has never been ten miles from the coast would call it "propulsive."  

Rob Weir


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