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Carolyn Chute Biography

maine lives class novels

Nationality: American. Born: Born Carolyn Penny in Portland, Maine, 1947. Education: Attended University of Southern Maine, 1972-78. Career: Variously professions, including waitress, chicken factory worker, hospital floor scrubber, shoe factory worker, potato farm worker, tutor, canvasser, teacher, social worker, and school bus driver, 1970s-1980s; part-time suburban correspondent, Portland Evening Express, Portland, Maine, 1976-81; instructor in creative writing, University of Southern Maine, Portland, 1985. Lives in Parsonsfield, Maine. Awards: First prize for fiction, Green Mountain Workshop, Johnson, Vermont, 1977. Agent: Jane Gelfman, John Farquharson, Ltd., 250 West 57th Street, Suite 1914, New York, New York 10107, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Beans of Egypt, Maine. New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1985; revised edition published as The Beans of Egypt, Maine: The Finished Version, San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Letourneau's Used Auto Parts. New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1988.

Merry Men. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1994.

Snow Man. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Other

Up River: The Story of a Maine Fishing Community (nonfiction, withOlive Pierce). Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1996.

Contributor, Inside Vacationland: New Fiction from the Real Maine, edited by Mark Melnicove. South Harpswell, Maine, Dog Ear Press, 1985.

Contributor, I Was Content and Not Content: The Story of Linda Lord and the Closing of Penobscot Poultry, by Cedric N. Chatterley and Alicia J. Rouverol. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

* * *

With the publication of her 1985 breakthrough novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Carolyn Chute's literary voice was hailed as almost primeval, an immaculately conceived mouthpiece for Maine's rural white underclass. Chute's three subsequent novels have marked her as an uneven literary power—with Snow Man almost universally denounced—but as a major figure, nevertheless. Originality of both subject and tone is perhaps Chute's greatest strength. The Bean family and their literary brethren are landed white trash whose land may be a dump or a swamp, and their house a trailer, and yet they retain the kind of permanence and sustainability that we associate with New England's blue-blooded dynasties. This resilience is Chute's most optimistic message amidst her portraits of people whose lives provide a more obvious opportunity for despair.

Chute's fictional Egypt, Maine, the setting of The Beans and Letourneau's Used Auto Parts is not a consumer culture per se so much as it is a culture of worthless goods that seems all-consuming. Her novels are narratives of failure by middle-class standards, but her characters seem indifferent to their own cultural entrapment; they live their lives fervidly and giddily, for the most part disinterested in middle-class "family values" such as attentive parenting, education, privacy, cleanliness, and good nutrition. Chute depicts an immobile class system that contrasts vividly to the sprawling and rambunctious Beans and their neighbors. These are messy lives and the telling of them is messy too, sometimes hard to follow; characters "gasp" and "choke" and "sputter" their words but seldom simply talk, and the twists and gaps and abrupt narrative shifts structurally replicate Chute's characters' disordered lives.

Throughout her novels sex is a craven and unromantic aspect of everyday life, and sexual relations are foretold with the grim inevitability of Greek drama. Incest and rape are commonplaces, denoted without the accompanying moral assertion that conventionally accompany these acts as literary themes. In her early novels Chute recalls Dorothy Allison's probing of the imprisoning forces of poverty and pregnancy, but does not share Allison's political and feminist agenda. Instead, Chute's portrayal of impoverished families lacks the framing devices of anger, sympathy, or outrage.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine, published after Chute borrowed the money to send the manuscript to a New York editor, tells the story of Earlene Pomerleau. Earlene's childhood fascination with the neighboring Bean clan foretells her eventual marriage to the violent Beal Bean. This marriage is difficult not to interpret as the book's tragic turning point, even though Chute avoids framing this, and other abusive couplings, with a critical eye. Instead, Earlene's decision to marry Beal is represented as the inescapable destiny of a girl, even a smart girl, growing up in Egypt, Maine. But the absence of a judgmental voice does seem amiss when precocious Earlene joins the ranks of always pregnant and often abused Bean mothers, wives, and mistresses. Despite Chute's dispassionate treatment of such lives, it is hard not to see Earlene's fall from spunk and wit to toil and degradation as a tragedy, even if doing so is to be influenced by the very middle-class values that Chute so determinedly resists.

Chute's anger against the establishment, variously represented by government workers, the middle and upper classes in general, and politicians, becomes more distinct with each novel she writes. Letourneau's Used Auto Parts maintains the same buoyant spirit as The Beans, and the title's reference to devalued goods reflects the novel's characters. They are themselves cheerfully recycled goods, in and out of marriages, haphazardly begetting and raising children, living amongst rummage sale bargains, crumbling houses, and conversations disrupted by protests and mumbles. But the entrance into this novel of the "code man," a census government worker who tries to regulate Lucien Letourneau's makeshift family (complete with illegitimate children, evicted neighbors, and a homeless old woman) establishes a theme even more overt in Chute's later novels: the disciplinary evil of the state.

Chute's most recent two novels are increasingly hostile in tone and her portrait of an unjust ruling class more reactionary than believable. In Merry Men Lloyd Barrington is a modern-day Robin Hood who has an affair with wealthy and hypocritical Gwen Curry Doyle, widow of a capitalist "devil" and Chute's scapegoat for the abuses and absurdities of capitalism. Lloyd is not one of Chute's typically down-and-out Maine workers—he's a poet and a college graduate, so his decision to be a gravedigger is exactly that—a decision that heroically marks his rejection of middle-class conventionality. Nothing and no one can make Lloyd anything but a kind of saint in gravedigger's clothing, and Chute's message is that "real" men can escape the pressures of corporate and soulless society and follow an independent, even consciously ignoble, path.

Snow Man, published in 1998, was almost routinely dismissed. Critics complained that the "activist has silenced the novelist" in this treatment of bourgeois hypocrisy. Robert Drummond, a construction-worker/militia man from Maine assassinates a U.S. senator and we are asked to condone this murder on the grounds that the senator was a corporate lackey. Following the murder, Drummond seduces the senator's daughter, a poorly drawn caricature of a Radcliffe-educated feminist/professor, and then he seduces her mother. What makes Snow Man disappointing is Chute's departure from what she does best: illustrate the lives of Maine's poor with humor, ingenuity, and a narrative voice largely indifferent to precedent.

Chute has said that it is not "the place of fiction to make judgments—to prescribe changes," which confirms the dispassionate tone of The Beans of Egypt, Maine and Letourneau's Used Auto Parts. But in Merry Men and Snow Man Chute does appear to be writing prescriptively, demarcating characters as good and bad depending on their class association. At times the spiritedness of her characters compensates for the abuses they suffer. At other times, however, their own complicity in their damaged lives is troubling, and the placement of blame on a weakly drawn middle-and upper-class establishment is reductive.

What is so surprising about Chute's better novels is that the lives of her Egypt-dwellers manage to be messily unpredictable and overdetermined by the grim yoke of poverty at the same time. Chute's slight of hand, her ability to illustrate a culture paradoxically composed of vitality and defeat, is truly original. At her strongest Chute writes, or rather sounds, like no one else: her dialogue and descriptions are rendered with the nuances and rhythms of real conversations and all of their staccato incongruities. To Lucien Letourneau, the almost god-like patriarch of Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, "everything is a miracle," and in Chute's improbable universe, we can begin to see his point. For despite its cruelty, even poverty is not without its own inchoate beauty.

—Tabitha Sparks

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