Joe Henry isn't sure if the book he wrote, Lime Creek, is a novel or a book of short stories, so his publisher, Random House, is just calling it "fiction." I can understand the confusion. The book is divided into two parts (I and II) and each part is subdivided into four sections, but it's not clear if these sections are meant to be chapters or stories. What is clear, though, is that they don't work in either capacity. The sections are dull, sentimental, and written in a prose style that does its best to communicate nothing.
Here, for example, is how "Tomatoes," a story or chapter about two boys splattering freshly washed sheets with tomatoes and then being punished for it, ends:
Inextricably joined from then on, like the rewiring of dissimilar synapses that once touched together become fused so in the fabric of memory. Immutable, irrepressible and inviolable to everything except death. Tomatoes. Forever after inspiring images that have little to do with the nourishment of the flesh. But like everything to do with the feeding of the soul.
- Lime CreekJoe HenryHardcover, Random House160 pages, $20.00
See what I mean? It's possible to guess what the author is gesturing toward—a kind of epiphanic moment that reveals that the two boys of this story have been forever changed by the events of the story—but I for one don't know what "dissimilar synapses" are or how they can be rewired to touch together and "become fused so" or what it means to rewire a fabric. And then how does this rewiring result in the two boys becoming "immutable, irrepressible and inviolable"? And can you even be irrepressible to something? And then there's that one word sentence, "Tomatoes," which I guess introduces a new subject for the fragments that follow, which means that it's the tomatoes the boys splattered that will "forever after" remind them of images that (a) "have little to do with the nourishment of the flesh" and (b) are "like"—why this like?—"everything to do with the feeding of the soul."
From all of this, it seems like the narrator means to say that from now on, whenever Luke and/or Whitney see a tomato, they will think of things that spiritually nourish them. Like maybe art or love or God.
All of which is clinched with "Tomatoes," one more time.
And the entire book—which mercifully is short and set in a font large enough to be decipherable by the visually impaired—is written with this same evasiveness. Two characters "almost simultaneously" burst into laughter. A character notices that the name of a town is Valhalla and considers "the symbolism of it or irony or whatever." A character goes out when "it's still night although the relentless flat wall of snow that races by us begins to gain some subtle gradation of what could only be perceived as notdarkness." There's "something almost kinetic, almost explosive, in the way" a football team takes a field. A faucet drips "as if it were nearly closed but not quite."
There are a lot of "almosts" and "somehows" and mixed metaphors and convoluted similes and changes of tense in these 142 pages but there's barely a narrative and hardly anything that differentiates the characters. There's Spencer Davis and his wife Elizabeth and their three sons, Luke, Whitney, and Lonny, and they all live on a ranch in Wyoming. Elizabeth is quiet and is known for her cooking and her clean sheets. Spencer is a rancher who says things like, "You mean this little perturbation of wind and weather?" Whitney is the strong, quiet type. Lonny doesn't come up much. Luke is probably the book's protagonist, and he goes from being a sweet, naïve boy to being "something even previous to the boy, something grown from the boy both forward in vision and back" when he realizes that "the cost of avoiding what one fears is even greater than the actual object of that fear and so the fear itself is even more corrosive even more destructive than all the frightening potential of the thing that arouses it." Whatever that means.
According to the jacket blurb from internationally bestselling author David Wroblewski, Henry's prose "brings Faulkner to mind" and Lime Creek is "a kind of Dubliners for Wyoming." But Wroblewski is wrong. Joe Henry isn't Faulkner or Joyce. (Joe Henry isn't even the Joe Henry you're thinking of, if you're thinking of the critically acclaimed musician and producer, though the Joe Henry who wrote Lime Creek has written song lyrics for people like John Denver and Garth Brooks, which makes it confusing.) Just because someone's syntax is unconventional doesn't mean his thought is poetic. Just because a text lacks a narrative doesn't mean it's lyrical. Just because you remove the space between two words doesn't mean you've made up a new one. (I'm looking at you, "seacreature.") And just because something is difficult to read doesn't mean it's profound.
Lime Creek relies on ambiguity to create insight, and it doesn't work. When a character finds a man passed out with his arm around a horse's neck and realizes "the beauty of it, of the oneness of all life," it's not a revelation. It's a cliché, clumsily phrased.