In 1968, an eccentric musician named Handy sets up a utopian commune in an abandoned estate for the hippies who’ve been following his tour. Ersatz Arcadia, the cold-trucks-and-lean-tos temporary camp, is the home of the communards for the first three years while they try to gather enough time, money and energy to renovate the huge Arcadia House.
But when Handy goes off on tour for several months, Abe Stone decides that the refurbishment project is precisely what the group needs to surprise (and prove something to) Handy, and to keep the group from disintegrating without its central force.
Abe and Hannah are the parents of the narrator, Bit. A sensitive and quiet child, Bit is intensely and convincingly aware of adult subtext. He watches as the successive winters of cold, hunger and discomfort weigh on his mother; he notices how his father gives everything to a community that is not always appreciative.
Contemporary literary novels with child narrators are frequently irritating, since the child must either be precociously capable of expressing to an adult audience how it feels to be a child, or must be precocious in describing its misunderstandings of the adult world. In short, the puppet strings are always visible.
In the first two sections of Arcadia, however, when Bit is five and then 14, Groff handles this problem with elegance and skill. She makes Bit ordinary, neither overly intelligent nor cutely confused about the larger world, and shrewdly gives him (unlike most of the other children of the commune) a stable family inside the inherent instability of Arcadia.
The final two sections take place Outside after Hannah, Abe and Bit finally walk out on Arcardia’s souring dream. A less skillful writer would have exploited the slapstick in Bit’s sudden exposure to the institutions and commercial absurdities of the world, but Groff chronicles Bit’s adaptation and development with delicacy and subtlety, conveying how his early experiences have shaped his values and all future relationships. An immigrant’s struggle to assimilate goes hand in hand with the story of the supremely adaptable nature of people, and any comedy in Bit’s integration into the world would have been cheap and flimsy. The real sadness for Bit is that no matter how alien he feels, his childhood community no longer exists.
In the second half of the book, Bit has married, and then lost, someone from Arcadia. My one criticism of this novel is that he seems well rid of the wife, so I have little patience for Bit as he slowly mourns her absence.
Things pick up again in the final section, which brings dreadful news from Hannah and Abe, reinstalled in an off-grid cottage in the grounds of Arcadia, and the astonishingly good description of an illness and slow decline from the point of view of both patient and care-giver, all depicted against a much larger canvas of global disease and panic.
But it’s not all doom and gloom: Groff can do funny too. When Bit and his dinner date discover a common interest in reading, he listens, horrified, as his date’s love of Ayn Rand gushes forth. Later, when they both accept that the spark has fizzled out, he says “I think it was the Ayn Rand.” She laughs and laughs at this, graceful under the implied criticism, under the sting of the differences between them.
And this is an important point about all Groff’s characters: the cold fish, the ones who shirk their responsibilities, even the ones who commit terrible deeds – all keep their dignity and grace intact, as if Groff holds them gently in a tiny circle of light, coaxing out the most reluctant specks of humanity.
In fact, grace and humanity are characteristic of all three of Groff’s books (the others being Monsters of Templeton and the story collection Delicate Edible Birds), otherwise all very different in style, form and content. Start with Arcadia and then read the others.
J.C. Sutcliffe writes about books at www.slightlybookist.wordpress.com.