Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The cheese stands alone

Some days (most days, actually), it's pretty easy to know why I am not an author. I'd never think to conflate scientifically aided multiple births, the uncertainty of family farming, a teacher who can't seem to separate his admiration for his pupils from his inappropriate attraction to them, and the creation of a huge wheel of cheese into one novel. Sheri Holman is an author, she takes the above ideas, mixes them together in a way that makes complete sense, and writes The Mammoth Cheese. It's bizarre, it's complicated, but it works.

In rural Three Chimneys, Virginia, Episcopalian pastor Leland Vaughn meddles with the best intentions. He convinces Manda Frank to not selectively terminate some of the 11 fetuses she is currently gestating after taking fertility drugs. As Manda's litter is born, the town is briefly inspired to community service -- aided, no doubt, by the descent of the media and a visit from presidential candidate Adams Brooke. When the babies begin dying, both the media and the community-mindedness die with them. Undeterred, Leland turns to small farmer, Margaret Prickett.

Margaret runs an organic dairy from a farm and ramshackle house that has been in her family for generations. She is deep in debt from inheritance taxes. Her cheeses are in great demand from high-end restaurants along the Eastern Seaboard, even though she must make and deliver them in secret since they come from raw, unpasteurized milk. Leland's son, August, helps Margaret on the farm and stoically keeps his love for her a secret. In his spare time, August dresses up as Thomas Jefferson (to whom he bears a slight resemblence) and "performs" as him in Chautauqua settings. Margaret has pinned her hopes on Adams Brooke, who she believes will propose tax amnesty legislation for small family farms. Even when Brooke claims the Prickett family motto -- Omnis pecuniae pecus fundamentum (The herd is the foundation of all wealth) -- as his own in the final presidential debate, Margaret sticks with him.

[Got all that?] One more thing: Margaret's 13-year-old daughter, Polly, reeling from her parents' recent divorce (where she learns that her father values her at precisely $490 a month in the child support that he doesn't pay), has developed a serious and seemingly reciprocated crush on her history teacher, Stanley March.

So, back to Pastor Vaughn. In another attempt to bring recognition and economic benefit to Three Chimneys, he convinces Margaret to reproduce the "mammoth cheese" that his ancestor, Massachusetts Baptist Thomas Leland, presented to President Jefferson to recognize his support of religious liberty. The 1,230-lb. cheese was emblazoned with the Jeffersonian statement: "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." The cheese will be presented to President Brooke shortly after his inauguration.

(Evidently, presentation of large cheese to presidents was a regular event in the 19th century. This image may be from President Jackson's time [modcult.org does not tell us from where this picture came].)

This novel is amazing not just on the level of how these complex stories cleverly come together (even though it looks like Manda and her brood get left behind, they don't). Each character is vividly portrayed, and none of them have easy-to-pinpoint motivations. Pastor Vaughn is a prime example: Despite the relentless wrongness of all his actions, he is never driven by greed or self-aggrandizement. I kept going back and forth with the extremely annoying adolescent Polly; yes, she's a self-centered pain in the ass, but every adult is failing her. The satire has a light touch, the history is fascinating, and the several tragedies come by honestly.

Occasionally, I did wonder where the African Americans were.

A new-to-me narrator -- with a lot of experience -- Laural Merlington, reads the lengthy novel. Her voice has warmth and range, and she balances the huge cast of characters with skill. I personally find the southern accent she employs to be over-exaggerated -- at times I felt like I was in the middle of Gone with the Wind or a Eudora Welty story, rather than a place that I sensed to be fairly near Washington, D.C. ... hardly the Deep South. But I am neither an expert nor a connoisseur of southern accents, so I could be talking totally through my hat. For the most part, I enjoyed Merlington's reading; she translated the compelling story with humor and pathos.

The publisher makes an error in employing a technique of altering any dialog that takes place over the telephone or through a microphone. The tinny, electronic sound was extremely distracting and utterly unnecessary. A wrong turn in an otherwise good production.

The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman
Narrated by Laural Merlington
Brilliance Audio, 2003. 16:00

No comments: