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Misplaced pride

Chatham interrupts Dorothy Bryant’s tale

If there’s one rule of literary criticism known to even the most rudimentary of reviewers, it’s this: Never judge a book by its cover. It’s neither wise nor fair to saddle potentially innocent authors with the sins of their often-anonymous marketers.

However. Clark City Press publisher Russell Chatham—a painter of landscapes in his more prominent mode—is so proud of his packaging that he almost demands suspension of the rule. Get a load of this, from Chatham’s “Design and Production Notes” on the book’s last page:

“Just as I have always insisted the frames on my paintings reflect the thought, care, and effort that went into the works themselves, at Clark City Press we feel the same way about the production values of the books we publish. Obviously, fine paper, proper binding, and a handsome cover can do nothing to help poorly crafted writing. However, we go to great lengths never to publish such, and therefore, do everything possible to dignify our books, as exemplified by The Berkeley Pit.

Be honest now: have you ever read anything quite so pretentious in all your life?

But let’s open the book, where the first thing we find is “A Note from the Publisher” (yup, Chatham again) where he butts in to tell us that we’re holding: “…in all respects a luminous example of mature literary authorship by one of our most genuine national treasures.”

Mature literary authorship! Most genuine national treasure!
More adjectives, please!

Even on the back cover, Chatham has synergistically posed Bryant holding a copy of Richard K. O’Malley’s Butte classic Mile High Mile Deep, republished by Clark City in an arty 2004 edition. (Traditionally, so-called vanity presses have appealed to the author’s ego more than the publisher’s; here the roles reverse themselves.)

But, but, but: We’re not supposed to review books by their covers, so why does any of this matter? Because Chatham’s intrusions, however lovingly administered, aren’t dignifying his author’s work, they’re distracting to the point of detraction.

He may think, as he writes, that he’s come up with “a cover which reaches out for the reader’s attention like Muhammed Ali’s left jab…” but it’s worrisome that he doesn’t know how to spell—or, less charitably, how to look up—Muhammad Ali’s name.

And it’s not just one lonely typo. In “an historical novel” largely about Berkeley, California, in the 1960s (and partly about Butte at the turn of the last century), “Allen Ginsberg” is spelled two different ways in seven pages, Missoula’s own Jeannette Rankin has her name incorrectly rendered, used book stores are indignified as “used bookstores,” and nouns like “City” and “Street” and “t-shirt” and “T-shirt” are capitalized or not willy-nilly. The inconsistencies jostle on the page with more simple spacing errors than any commercially published product—never mind one that pats itself on the back over attention to detail—should reasonably contain.

The mess, alas, detracts from a reader’s appreciation of Bryant’s work, which is the relatively straightforward and skillful construction of a literary bridge between Butte’s famous Berkeley Pit and the morass of personality and politics that has characterized the University of California campus at Berkeley for the last 40 years.

If there’s any evidence of a nominal connection between the two locales, Bryant doesn’t present it. Instead, she invents Harry, a sometime student at a near-Berkeley community college who grew up in Butte hearing stories of the mines from his Italian grandmother, Nonnarina, who lost her house and died in Meaderville when the company abandoned the shafts and started digging the pit out from under her. Harry’s stories catch the ear of his teacher, Ruth, the novel’s narrator, who becomes his friend and motherly advocate. Harry fails to write a book, returns to Butte, marries, has a child, divorces, and eventually returns to Berkeley to [spoiler alert]: run a used book store, specializing in biography, called “Get A Life.”

Ruth stays put and watches Berkeley’s decline from eager idealism to petty politics over her backyard fence, where a “homeless collective” on the street behind her plays prominently in the plot.

There’s no real romance. Some people get arrested. The revolution eventually televises itself and everyone gets older and wiser or dead. The novel is resolutely admirable in its failure to pander, either to moralizers or memory-laners. It’s appealingly wry in Ruth’s voice, well plotted, and a bit of a treasure trove for readers interested in the gossipy cultures of bookstores, public radio, mid-level academia and transience.

And despite the inevitable scene-setting name-droppery (Eldridge Cleaver, Jessica Mitford, Gary Snyder, oh my!) and Zeligesqe sense that you’re watching newsreel highlights flash before your eyes (an extra-narrative nag seemingly endemic to any fiction that tries to telegraph “the sixties”), The Berkeley Pit is a satisfying story. It weaves disparate generations through time and space, not effortlessly but well, and humanizes a cliché—The People’s Republic of Berzerkely—in the process.

Along the way, it might even introduce new readers to the ever-deepening fascination that is Butte.

These are pictures worth painting. If only anyone can see them past Russell Chatham, waving his arms and pumping his legs, peddling his misplaced pride.

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