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The Poet of Tolstoy Park
By Sonny Brewer
Ballantine Books, 2005
Hardcover, $21.95 (254 pages)
ISBN: 034547631X
There is an elegant, poetic quality to the prose of Sonny Brewer’s first novel, The Poet of Tolstoy Park. It is softly told, as though woven by a thread that at times is almost invisible, and yet there is a power in the perfectly drawn words that fit together and sing a song about living with a certain grace that old things have and shiny new things don’t.

As the novelist begins his story on a hard plains of Idaho, where Henry Stuart lives among his books, we see a man who is simple but who is covered with a patina that is all his: an aging seminarian, whose religion has been honed down from a religious scholar to a philosopher who teaches those around him about life and about living. When he learns that he has only a year to live with an advanced case of non contagious tuberculosis, Henry gives away most of his earthly belongings to his two sons and his best friend. He keeps some money and his most treasured books, including some of the works of Leo Tolstoy, whose words, “The more you transform your life from the material to the spiritual domain, the less you become afraid of death,” becomes Henry’s personal philosophy.

He is drawn to Fairhope, Alabama, a place where individuals whom he admires, like Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, and Clarence Darrow, have lived, and where the warmer climate promises a better life for a man with diseased lungs. So, at age 67, in 1925, Henry sets out across the country on train toward south Alabama, where he has purchased sight unseen ten acres of land. Near the end of the journey, when the train pulls into Mobile, Henry gives away his boots and travels across Mobile Bay by steamer, and when he arrives at the city pier he is barefoot.

And so it is with this amazing personality, whose beard has become shaggy and whose toes stick up. He makes several friends who want to help him become adjusted to his new life, but he is an individual who is dead-set on doing things his own way.

In the quiet power of his simple descriptions, Sonny Brewer draws us into Henry’s world slowly but effectively, as in this chapter beginning: “It was morning, and the sun was backlighting a silvered sky, darkening to heavy gray where it encircled the horizon above a ragged tree line. Henry was washing his breakfast bowl in a white porcelain-coated metal bucket when he heard an automobile approaching. A gusting wind blew a dust plume down the road ahead of the car, and Henry stood up from his task, wondering who it might be.” As I read those lines, I thought of my old creative writing professor Hudson Strode’s maxim: “Simplicity is greatness,” and I realized exactly what he meant.

After Henry lives through the whipping winds of a hurricane, awakening to find himself curled into a ball, he watches an osprey fly overhead carrying the scraps retrieved from debris of the storm. He watches as the bird begins building a nest. He asks himself why birds build their nests in a circle. Then he looks around and sees that he too has the perfect place for a circular hut on the top of a knoll at the highest spot in his ten acres, which he has named Tolstoy Park. He begins planning.

As his plans begin to take shape, Henry becomes determined to build his place, his home, his circular hut, his death bed. As the holy man of the Oglala Sioux, Black Elk, has said: “...everything an Indian does is in a circle. And that is because the Power of the World always works in a circle, and everything tries to be round... The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball. And so are all the stars. The wind in its greatest power swirls.”

However, in his abstinent quest to accomplish his goal alone, Henry enrages those who have attempted to befriend him. When his neighbor Peter Stedman offers to help, even after he’d suffered a snake bite while checking on Henry after the big storm, Henry refuses his help and in doing so, offends Peter by his abrupt words. And when the attractive young teacher, Kate Anderson, and her little daughter Anna Pearl offer their friendship, he retreats into a world of silence, and they are hurt by his haughty ways.

Still, there is a unique quality in Henry. There is something of the noble beast in him as he wants to live and work alone, knowing that he must die alone. As he thinks of his solitary work, he likens his self-imposed sentence to 40 days in the wilderness, then Peter reminds him that he is not Jesus.

While The Poet of Tolstoy Park exudes a certain energy in the very choice of the words, the intricate details pulsate with its own poetic sense of place. It is the delicate choice of words that makes it move from within.

Finally, in the end, the book is more than the sum of its parts, what a novel is all about, the characters in conflict with themselves and their environment that brings the plot to a strong climax. The land itself is a character in Poet, and novelist makes us astutely aware of that fact as he weaves his story to a positive close, finally filling his design with a stitching of words that are very meaningful and rewarding.

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

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