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NORTHERN LIGHTS by Tim O’Brien

NORTHERN LIGHTS

By Tim O’Brien

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1975
ISBN: 0767904419
Publisher: Delacorte

Two brothers, Viet-vet Harvey, and Minnesota county farm agent Paul, sons of a Finnish-American hellfire preacher (who directed Harvey to build a bomb shelter against the holocaust-to-come before he died), are weighted with their legacies of fear and doom-haunted memories. The pair are like "twin oxen struggling in different directions against the same old yoke. . . the long history: the town, the place, the forest and religion. . . human beings and events, partly a genetic fix, an alchemy of circumstance." Paul, unable to respond to the motherly devotion of his wife Grace, grows flabby, goes through the motions on his job. Harvey is a Saturday night good-time Charlie, spouting dreams and planning journeys to far places. When the brothers are lost in a blizzard, it is the weaker Paul who pulls ahead to save Harvey from death. But it is not until the men decide to sell their property that Paul confronts the frozen northland of his total impotence, and in a symbolic immersion in a polluted pond, allows the "whole architecture of his northern world to flow sweetly to ruin in the hot waters." Paul, at last truly united with Grace, prepares to leave; but Harvey cannot leave his life of circular illusion. The very earnestness and clapboard verisimilitude of this first novel, manifested in speech that marks time rather than bringing events and personality to the flood, rescues the heavy-handed symbolism. It's a long, slow trek, but worth going the distance.