by Gaither Stewart
Review by Michael Hopping
softcover, 2007, 301 pp. $15.00
published by WastelandRunes.
The book may be purchased online at www.wastelandrunes.com
The shadow of Thomas Wolfe, the Asheville, North Carolina, expatriate who couldn’t go home again, is a brotherly background presence in Gaither Stewart’s new novel, Asheville. After thirty years abroad, Stewart’s rootless-by-choice protagonist, Govar Killian, returns to the town of his youth in search of a nonbinding connection with his past, especially with Jeanette, his vanished and probably dead first love.
Intermingled with the current city’s scrubbed facade, Killian’s compulsive and nostalgic meanderings in downtown Asheville offer him tantalizing glimpses of the streets he once knew. In each woman he pursues, memories of Jeannette beckon. This Asheville, unlike Thomas Wolfe’s, is willing to welcome her long lost son, or perhaps, as Tsalagi shaman and Merrimon Avenue garage mechanic Patrick Barefoot informs Killian, “You can’t get away from anything . . .We carry our places in us forever.”
Asheville is a meditation on the contexts that may support human life. In a turn rich with irony, Killian’s escape from Asheville in search of freedom has led him to a wanderer’s adulthood in Europe while his friend and fellow Ashevillian Clyde remains as rooted in Asheville as any 17th century European. Clyde envies Killian’s scavenger mobility. Killian is ambivalently repelled and attracted by his friend’s deep sense of place. While the white men swirl and fret, Barefoot, the Cherokee medicine man, fixes their cars, ensconced in a context of ever-presence and endless return.
Killian thrives on ambiguity. He muses:
The melding of fantasy and reality creates ambivalence precisely at the point the two come together. It’s a dangerous spot. It’s the present. It is also like the gloaming, when the sun has vanished and darkness is falling. The meeting is sweet-toned and honey-tongued. It is the chaos of nothingness becoming something.
The European headiness of Killian’s voice will pull American readers into the uncertain junction of fantasy and reality along with him. In one moment he shows us a familiar world. In the next he catches us off guard with a perspective that may seem utterly foreign.
Stewart’s talent for reproducing his protagonist’s confusion in the reader elevates Asheville. Home, for Govar Killian, may be a hair’s-breadth away and forever out of reach. His struggle to bridge that infinitesimal gap asks us to consider where home is and how much our differing answers to that question can affect the sorts of food we find waiting for us there in the fridge.