Will Gaitlin is a stone cold stoic, a self-critical ex-teacher who has practically gone feral and carved out a life as a recluse in the woods. His sole responsibility is a big one—spotting smoke or forest fires from a tower—but it requires minimal human contact. He lets us in on scant information from his past, just scraps here and there. He’s more interested in the deer in the woods, the shadows. When he thinks something, what we see are his actions.
Art Ballantine, who thinks nature is where you throw your beer cans, wants Gaitlin to come back to civilization before he dies. Will Gaitlin considers Ballantine a “degenerate old dog.”
Gaitlin isn’t going anywhere. Gaitlin knows it, we know it. These two are an unlikely pair, but their exchanges are very funny.
Says Ballantine: “Don’t give me that Thoreauvian bullshit, man. Listen, leave this Smokey Bear stuff for the local jokels. They can hack it, they’ve got nothing to begin with anyway. But outside there’s a world, Will. The great world. All yours. Full of fruit, wine, beautiful ideas, lovely and lascivious ladies, enchanted cities, gardens of electricity and light.”
Ballantine’s gruff and macho letters to Gaitlin form a kind of comic relief to this brief novel.
A woman—a young woman—enters the picture and Will Gaitlin is transfixed and transformed, albeit in his deeply cool way. Sandy, with the sweater and the kilt and sipping Cokes through a straw. “He watched the light glistening in the deep copper-colored masses of her hair.” While Will is certain of his physical yearnings, he’s reluctant to open up. He fears committing to a version of events.
“Admiring the span and arch of her brown eyebrows, the subtle blue shading of her eyelids, her fresh translucent skin, the pulse at the bottom of her throat. Told her not the whole story, of course, but an outline of it, a diagram. The words as always so poor an imitation of the reality; not even in fact an imitation at all but a different reality, making what little he remembered of his life something apart and separate, in a different world.”
Sandy slips away. Gaitlin’s search for her is beautiful, haunting, heartfelt. It’s desperate but also, somehow, not. The search in the blazing heat is for her—but also for himself. Looking in the vast “inferno” of the desert is an “act of insanity” but he can’t imagine doing anything else.
Gaitlin is out in here in the desert in part, we learn, because as a teacher he had learned how much he didn’t know. “My ignorance was terrifying…An abyss.” This is the real emptiness Gaitlin feels, that ever-present sense of how much else is out there. Things he doesn’t know.
The writing is beautiful—as spare and clean as the landscape. It’s hard not to read this without thinking of the irascible Edward Abbey from Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang. There’s plenty of connective tissue between those two books and this fiction. I try to imagine if this book was published today by an unknown writer—would it stand up? Would it a publisher recognize its strengths? I’d like to think so.
Abbey said he wrote this book in hopes to capture “that sound the wind makes wailing through the yellow pines.”
When Gaitlin sees something in the woods, “Black Sun,” an elegant but brisk novel, makes us feel like we can see it too—deep down in the shadows.