Castle Freeman, Jr., has gone to the devil. Let us all rejoice. "The Devil in the Valley," the latest novel from this fine writer, is a great romp through Windham County with a Mephistopheles boosted from Christopher Marlowe's stage, transported across five centuries and one ocean, and repotted on our turf as a shape-shifting dude named Dangerfield.
But don't worry. This is no tedious morality tale or apocalyptic portent. The novel opens with Dangerfield at the wheel of a spiffy little MGA in springtime Vermont, "spinning through the curves of the little two-lane, enjoying the blooming trees, the blooming shrubs, the blooming daffodils or whatever the hell they were," on his way to find a local named Langdon Taft. He's stopped en route by a trooper, and while the trooper is checking his license and registration, poof! Dangerfield and the MGA vanish into thin air.
Dear Reader, this is your cue that Dangerfield is no ordinary flatlander.
Dangerfield materializes in Taft's living room and negotiations commence. Taft is a sad man, a solitary alcoholic or, as Freeman puts it with his trademark dry humor, "an ex-gentleman, ex-teacher, ex-scholar, ex-householder, ex-abstainer." But whatever else he may or may not be, Taft is not an easy sell. After he demands proof of Dangerfield's "talents," the two exchange words: "I asked you for four new tires," [Taft] told Dangerfield. "That's not four new tires. That's a whole new truck." Happy birthday, Chief. "You didn't get me what I asked for, though, did you?"
And that, Dear Reader, is your cue that Taft is no ordinary sinner. Nevertheless, the two seal a deal, and with that, we're off to tour the West River Valley's lives and loves, joys and woes, needs and greeds.
The plot reveals itself almost entirely through conversations between characters, and Taft's occasional musings. This kind of dialog-based narrative, in less skilled hands, would sound like a commercial for laundry detergent. But Freeman pulls it off so successfully that you don't even realize what he's done until after you set the book down. If then.
Also typically Freemanesque, the story is peppered with priceless images, puns, multiple entendres, witticisms, sly and not-so-sly literary allusions. "What kind of a name's Calpurnia?" "Calpurnia's somebody in a Shakespeare play. My mother loved Shakespeare." "Why didn't she name you Shakespeare, then?" "That would have been pretty peculiar, wouldn't it? "So's Calpurnia," said Eli.
Or consider Dangerfield's wardrobe, which changes with every scene. For an early appearance, he is "attired in a fresh, well-pressed, white lab coat over a crisp blue shirt and a red polka-dot bow tie. A stethoscope hung around his neck, and the left breast pocket of his lab coat was embroidered: MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL." Later on, he wears "the trappings of a ghetto pimp: full-length fur coat dyed pink; green three-piece suit, the open vest plunging to reveal a heavily pelted chest and a couple of pounds of gold chains and medallions lying on the fur; a diamond stud the size of a garden pea in his right nostril; a yellow broad-brimmed hat a yard wide, made of velour; combat boots, also yellow."
But for all its inherent humor, The Devil in the Valley is, ultimately, about heart and soul. As we bear witness to Taft's exercise of his contractual privileges, we also see neighbors helping neighbors and communities rallying in times of crisis. Amid it all, Taft the hermit, Taft the reprobate, helps too, and astonishes pretty much everyone, especially the large number of folks who have been heretofore unaware of his existence.
Particularly choice is the case of "Jack Raptor, the long-knife litigator," who wears "gentleman's shoes, tasseled, highly polished, hand-lasted" and lives in a Sutton Place duplex with a dressing room. When the recalcitrant lawyer refuses to withdraw a mean-spirited lawsuit, he gets a quick dose of Taftian justice and ends up living in a carton with a welcome mat that reads "HOMELESS PLEASE HELP." The tasseled loafers are torn and scuffed, and his begging bowl doesn't contain a single coin. When Dangerfield's enforcers stand in front of "the filthy and abject creature" cowering in his cardboard den, they mention Taft's name. "At that, a yellow liquid began to flow from the heap in the carton....The two men stepped nimbly out of the way of the stream."
Taft's journey propels him through a gantlet of increasingly trying situations, including some that involve his own heart's desires. Yet he navigates these to a climax that is as surprising as it is satisfying. On this point, Dear Reader, you'll just have to trust me. The tale of Langdon Taft's hellish skirmish is a heavenly read.
Ellen Williams is an independent professional writer and occasional artist; she lives in Newfane.