Peter Geye's THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD
So, as it turns out, trying to pinpoint the spirit and culture of the Midwest through its writers is an elusive task. The Midwest is not one monolithic culture, but a vibrant, shifting field of sub-cultures and sub-regions bursting with a diverse collection of voices. These voices are often oriented in the now, but sometimes they’re oriented in the then, too—how things were about these parts in the old days.
Peter Geye is one of these writers—interested in the old days, as well as in the landscape and culture of northern Minnesota. He’s written three novels—Safe from the Sea, The Lighthouse Road, and his newest, due out this week, Wintering. Each of these books is set in the sparsely-populated but richly-laked and wooded environment of the Minnesota borderlands, and each of them presents characters who are deeply engaged in that remote, beautiful, and often harrowing place. One of the things I admire about his writing is how he delights in the language of work—the work of building, of logging, of boating, of the unrelenting daily chores that make up the lives of his characters.
This passage is from Geye’s second novel, The Lighthouse Road. This section takes place in 1920, during Prohibition, when whisky-runners would do business in rocking boats on dark midnight lakes. In this scene, Geye’s protagonist, Odd Eide, who runs whisky for his boss, Hosea Grimm, navigates a broken-down skiff through difficult waters in the middle of the night.
The oncoming boat made steady progress. She’d done the lion’s share of traveling that night, forty or fifty miles up from Port Arthur. He could see that the boat—as big as a towboat, and cut like one, too—was suited for seas like these. Much better suited than his skiff. He thought for the millionth time of the boat in his mind. Could see it damn near plain as day. Could see himself in a cockpit, the spray over the bow spattering glass instead of his wincing face.
They called sooner than he’d expected, their voices carried on the stiff breeze. “Ahoy! That Grimm’s runner? What’re ya, in a canoe there?”
He heard drunken laughter as the Canadians slowed beside him. When the lines came over and after he triced up the boats, he saw there were three men.
“Old Grimm sent a runt, Donny. Look at this one.”
“You shits are late,” he said. “It’s no night for sitting in a skiff.”
One of the men had come to his gunwale and stood looking down at him. “But it’s a fine night for moonshine! Just look at her up there.” The man gestured at the luminous sky. “Don’t piss on me about being late, runty. We’re here, we got the hooch.”
“That’s what Grimm ordered, that’s what we got. How `bout the dough? Hosea send it along?”
Odd reached into his pocket and withdrew the wad of bills. He handed it up to the man at the gunwale.
“It’s all here?”
“It’s all there.”
“Donny! Over the side. Let’s load these barrels.”
The one named Donny came over the gunwale and into Odd’s skiff. He offered his hand and they shook and when he looked up they were ready with the first barrel.
“Good Christ, friend, six of these barrels might damn well sink you.”
“Don’t worry,” Odd said. They each took an end and lowered the barrel, the boats rising and falling like a pair of drunken dancers.
They took five more barrels aboard his skiff and Donny scuttled back up onto his boat. “I’ve seen sunken boats with more freeboard than that,” he said.
“Say your prayers, runty,” one of them said. “By God, you’ll need more than luck to get back to Gunflint.”
Peter Geye’s novel, The Lighthouse Road, was published by Unbridled Books in 2012. Look for his new novel, Wintering, due out this week from Knopf.