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A Novel

Written by Sonny BrewerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Sonny Brewer

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On Sale: March 01, 2005
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-48196-2
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“The more you transform your life from the material to the spiritual domain, the less you become afraid of death.” Leo Tolstoy spoke these words, and they became Henry Stuart’s raison d’etre. The Poet of Tolstoy Park is the unforgettable novel based on the true story of Henry Stuart’s life, which was reclaimed from his doctor’s belief that he would not live another year.

Henry responds to the news by slogging home barefoot in the rain. It’s 1925. The place: Canyon County, Idaho. Henry is sixty-seven, a retired professor and a widower who has been told a warmer climate would make the end more tolerable. San Diego would be a good choice.

Instead, Henry chose Fairhope, Alabama, a town with utopian ideals and a haven for strong-minded individualists. Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, and Clarence Darrow were among its inhabitants. Henry bought his own ten acres of piney woods outside Fairhope. Before dying, underscored by the writings of his beloved Tolstoy, Henry could begin to “perfect the soul awarded him” and rest in the faith that he, and all people, would succeed, “even if it took eons.” Human existence, Henry believed, continues in a perfect circle unmarred by flaws of personality, irrespective of blood and possessions and rank, and separate from organized religion. In Alabama, until his final breath, he would chase these high ideas.

But first, Henry had to answer up for leaving Idaho. Henry’s dearest friend and intellectual sparring partner, Pastor Will Webb, and Henry’s two adult sons, Thomas and Harvey, were baffled and angry that he would abandon them and move to the Deep South, living in a barn there while he built a round house of handmade concrete blocks. His new neighbors were perplexed by his eccentric behavior as well. On the coldest day of winter he was barefoot, a philosopher and poet with ideas and words to share with anyone who would listen. And, mysteriously, his “last few months” became years. He had gone looking for a place to learn lessons in dying, and, studiously advanced to claim a vigorous new life.

The Poet of Tolstoy Park is a moving and irresistible story, a guidebook of the mind and spirit that lays hold of the heart. Henry Stuart points the way through life’s puzzles for all of us, becoming in this timeless tale a character of such dimension that he seems more alive now than ever.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

• ONE •

Henry walked out of the doctor’s office and the drumming rain that had begun to fall went straight through his thin white hair, wetting his head and sending a chill down his back. Instead of putting on his hat, he placed the flat of his palm on his forehead and stroked the dampness accruing there. He sat down on the edge of the porch, quickly soaking the seat of his pants.

He rubbed his hands together and massaged the pain in his knuckles, then lifted his left foot and took hold of the heel of his boot and tugged it off. He straightened his back, took a breath, and in a moment crossed his right leg over stiffly and removed the other boot. Henry decided, because it was his option to do so, that he would abandon his boots. He paired them up evenly there on the boards.

Henry could not remember when last he had walked barefoot in the rain, mud squishing up between his toes. He believed it was Black Elk, or maybe Chief Seattle, who had said that the man who always wears his moccasins thinks the earth is covered with leather. Henry looked at his boots and wondered how long they would sit before someone took them. They were good Wellingtons and not badly worn, and he thought someone would be surprised to find a pair of boots on the porch at Dr. Belton’s place.

Henry planted his palms on his knees, caressed the wet brown twill trousers, and from those points levered himself to standing. He would let his feet know that this piece of earth was covered with mud, and thought perhaps they’d enjoy knowing that.

He tilted his face downward and was lifting his rumpled and sweat-stained felt hat when he heard his name called and, looking up, saw a horse and wagon drawing near the plank sidewalk in front of which he stood. Twenty years earlier in Nampa, Idaho, the first automobile had been delivered on a flat train car. Now in 1925 the tables were turned and only a few stubborn sorts still went about in horse-drawn carriages or wagons. This driver was among them. He sat alone on the buckboard seat, the long leather reins drawn tight in his gloved hand, making to stop his dappled gray Appaloosa. With his left hand the driver pulled back hard on the brake shaft.

“Whoa! Whoa back there, Bo,” the driver said.

The horse slowed his walk, its hooves sucking at the muddy street, but did not come to a stop until the wagon was dead even with Henry. This side street was one of four remaining unoiled or unpaved streets in Nampa, and some of Dr. Belton’s patients said perhaps the dust and mud was unsanitary, but the doctor disagreed. He did not like automobiles himself, and he owned the entire block, so the town council took their pavement and their oiling elsewhere for the time being. That kept at least some of the cars away, and the smell of oil out of the air.

“How do, Brother Webb?” Henry nodded to the man in the wagon, then raised his arm, hat in hand, and slowly wiped the top of his head with his shirtsleeve, depositing his hat there before dropping his hand to his side. His arms hung straight, his fingers loose.

“Did you pray up this rain, Will?” Henry was making small talk, postponing for a moment at least what was coming. But the Reverend William Webb had been dealing with people of all stripes for forty years, and Henry knew this preacher’s practiced eye would discern that the news from the doctor was bad. Like as not, Henry’s two boys had made such a prediction to the preacher man. Both his sons went to this preacher’s church, Harvey, the oldest, a regular. We might as well go ahead and get on down to the quick on this one, Henry thought.

“Henry,” the preacher said, rain dripping from the brim of his hat, “Thomas and Harvey have been telling me something’s bad wrong with you. Said you’ve been coughing and spitting up blood and you were coming in to see the doctor this morning. I watched you go in there, and I’ve been lying in wait like a highwayman for you to come out. Now, I—”

“Dr. Belton said it’s consumption, Will,” Henry said evenly. “Tuberculosis. He’s given me a year to live. Maybe not that long. Maybe a little more.” Henry stood, like a patient man in line at a bank, his arms at his side. He was a tall man, just at six feet, and medium-built, his shoulders still square and his spine still straight. Nothing about him projected grave illness, and he could have passed for a man of fifty, though he was sixty-seven. His clear blue eyes locked on the dark eyes of the preacher, darker still under the soaked brim of his hat.

William Webb shook his head, then bent his face downward. When Will looked up, he said, “I am sorry, Henry. This is a hard one, my friend.” The preacher wrapped the reins around the brake, slid across the wet seat, taking hold of the seat back to help steady his rise. “If you’ll let me, I’ll pray with you, Henry. Just a brief word with the Lord.” A big redbone hound bellied out from underneath the porch, startling the horse into a quick forward step, snatching the wagon. The preacher lurched and fell back, sitting down hard on the wagon seat. “Aw, Bo, damn your hide!”

Henry smiled. “Keep your seat, Reverend.” He watched the old hound trot across the street, going diagonally toward the alley that would take him behind the Melton Hotel, and perhaps a scrap of bread raked off a breakfast plate. The morning fell darker, and there was a low roll of thunder toward the hills east of town, and the rain fell harder. Henry turned his collar up. “I’ll let you know when I need a prayer lifted on my behalf, though I do appreciate your intent, Brother Webb.”

“Can I at least give you a ride back out to your place? This muck’ll ruin your boots.” The preacher let his eyes travel slowly down to Henry’s long bare feet. “Well, that is, when you put your boots back on. I’ve got to go in that direction, Henry, and I’d not think a thing of carting you to your front gate.”

“But it’s to the Pearly Gates you truly want to cart me. I have known you for too long, Will. You’ll never give up. You would talk all the way and make half a dozen altar calls.”

“I expect there’d not be time for half a dozen entreaties mean- ingful enough to rescue that starving soul of yours.” Preacher Webb propped a booted foot on the buckboard’s dash, caught the wet and wilted brim of his hat and tilted it back a bit for a better look at Henry James Stuart. “I worry about you, Henry, staying away from the church like we’ve got out a quarantine sign. Both your sons come as often as we open the doors. Don’t you think Molly would want you in the church with her boys?”

Henry braced his shoulders and closed his hands, though not tight into fists. “Molly did want me to go to church. With her. And I went, glad to go for the pleasure it seemed to give to her. But, Will, Molly is dead three years now, and—”

“And you have not darkened the door of my church one time since she passed, Henry.”

“Nor shall I, Will. We don’t really have to talk about this again, do we?”

“But do you not fear for your soul now that you’ll soon face the Almighty?” The preacher sat straighter, still holding up the brim of his hat.

“My face has never turned away from God, nor my ear ever inclined away from his counsel. You do not stand between me and my creator, Will Webb. It seems a prideful thing to suggest, and a touch arrogant.”

Preacher Webb took his foot from the dash and banged it down on the puddled floorboard, leaning forward to unwrap the reins. “And you are the stubbornest man in all of Idaho, Henry. My prayer is that you get a chance to argue your name onto Heaven’s roll, for you could argue the horns off a goat.” The rain quickly eased and almost stopped, and both men looked briefly toward the sky, as if to find the cause of the lull.

“Since you have got it going this morning, Will, let me argue with you for half a minute,” Henry said, drawing his bushy white eyebrows together in a frown. “Let me tell you how I believe that all the names of all the people in all the ages are written forever on that roll you speak of. How I believe that when our Maker claims what is his at the birth of a child and duly records it in his Book of Life, that little one becomes a divine property that neither foe nor force nor deed can steal.”

Henry lifted his hands, a questioning gesture. “Can’t you get your preacher’s heart to believe that what was ever once God’s is always God’s? It’s simple to me. There is nothing that can oppose the creative force of the universe. There is nowhere to get to, Will, if you never truly left. It’s because you and others of your ilk cannot even approach such an idea that I have no need of what you’re selling at the churchhouse, Will.”

“This is your ‘Everybody Gets Back to Heaven’ sermon. I’ve heard it before, Henry.” The reverend held the reins one in each hand, and was bent forward slightly with his forearms resting on his heavy thighs. “Come on, Henry. What a load of bull. I don’t know how they graduated you from Mount Union. Must’ve been an off year for them in their divinity department to turn you loose among good Baptists.”

Henry shook his head, but smiled. He had first laid out his theology to Will Webb on one of their fishing afternoons down at a favorite spot on Lake Lowell. It was after Aldus Sansing, a man well known to Henry, had been cut down with a double-barreled shotgun during a robbery and had died without officially “coming to the Lord” on a Sunday morning. Aldus never went there. Not for weddings and not for funerals.

His murderer was soon caught, and while he waited in jail to be hanged, he found his salvation, presided over and attested to by Reverend Orlen Estes. A grammar-schooler, thought Henry, could see something wrong with the killer getting his writ to enter Heaven while a good man had been murdered and tossed to Hell.

Ruminating upon that, in a moment’s insight, Henry had come to believe that if indeed there was a “next step” after this trail is quit, then all and everyone is privileged to walk that walk. Henry believed he saw clearly the advance of all things. He knew that a boy who takes early to drinking and carousing is not left in some box marked 1907, but gets himself along to 1915 and a box labeled “Loving Husband/Good Father.” But then he might run off with the neighbor’s wife the next year. And that was that. And it did not matter a whit, for all manner of things would in time be set right.

And Henry was at ease with his belief, but Henry’s first son Harvey had told him to his face that he was hell-bound. Neither he nor his friend Will Webb could cotton to a simple line that all persons would perfect the soul awarded them, even if it takes eons. Neither could seem to comprehend the absence of a devil that could actually oppose and defeat the maker of the universe. For Henry, the debate was ended. And now, it seemed, he’d be the first of the three to discover the truth of his religion. And that was well enough for Henry, who in apprehending the mix of sadness and exasperation on Will’s face found his thoughts turning to Tolstoy. Henry had been read- ing and rereading the novels of Tolstoy since he was in his twenties, and had long studied his nonfiction. Henry knew that Tolstoy was a deeply spiritual man, and yet was excommunicated and therefore buried without the help of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some in Tolstoy’s church, certainly his family and friends, must have been nonplussed by his disdain for organized religion.

The Reverend William Webb slid back across the wagon’s board seat, making a swipe at the spot he’d just vacated. “Here, then. Put your boots back on, Henry, and hop up here and let me give you a ride home. Come on now, before this rain takes up again. I’ll not preach a word in the direction of your black heart.” The preacher gave an exaggerated wink. “While we’re riding you can tell me about this consumption, or what have you, that’s fool enough to think it can kill you.” Will paused, removed his wet right glove to accept the hand of his friend and help him onto the wagon seat, then said, “It’s not catching, I guess. Consumption, I mean.”

That got another smile out of Henry. He shook his head. “It’s not the contagious strain of the illness.” Henry motioned with his hand to the preacher. “I’ll walk, Will. And without my fine boots. It will be excellent practice for those long barefoot walks up in the clouds. But I do thank you for the kindness of your offer.”

“Now who is the arrogant one? Where do you come by the certainty that it’ll not be red-hot coals you’ll be treading upon, Henry? Down there!” And Will Webb gave a thumbs-down toward the ground. Both men fell into laughter for a brief moment until Henry gave a deep raspy cough and turned to take from his unbuttoned shirt pocket a clean fold of handkerchief and coughed into that, putting it into his trousers back pocket when normal breathing had come again to him. Unguarded, muscles in the preacher’s face now sagged downward around his eyes and mouth and the sadness was plain to see. “I am mighty sorry, Henry. Mighty sorry.” Will shifted both reins to his left hand and held his open right palm out toward his friend. “May the peace of the Lord be with you, Henry.”

Henry drew a finger to his hat. Will gestured a final time to the seat beside him. Henry shook his head no. Will nodded and slapped the reins. Bo pulled the wagon into the sloppy, gray-mudded street, and Henry saw Will draw himself down against the cold rain.

Henry spoke into the soft sigh of the morning. “And also with you, Brother Webb.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Sonny Brewer|Author Q&A

About Sonny Brewer

Sonny Brewer - The Poet of Tolstoy Park

Photo © Chris John

Sonny Brewer owns Over the Transom Bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama, and serves as board chairman of the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts. He is the author of the novel The Poet of Tolstoy Park and the upcoming A Sound like Thunder.

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH SONNY BREWER

Interviewer John Evans is the owner of Lemuria Books, an independent bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi.

John Evans: It was actually after reading The Poet of Tolstoy Park that I learned your novel was inspired by real events, and, more important, by a real person. Just what was your starting point for this book?

Sonny Brewer: In 1982, I was looking for a job that gave me more free time to write during the day, and real estate sales seemed a good choice. When I showed up for my first class at an office complex just north of my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, I was surprised to find an odd, round, domed structure made of concrete sitting squarely in the middle of the parking lot. It had six small windows and a door. Shaded by a droopy live oak tree and splotched with moss clinging to its mortared block walls, it looked dropped there from some ancient time, seeming all the more out of place with asphalt crowding it on three sides. The door opened within six feet of the office buildings at its west side. I forgot all about my real estate classes, and snooped around this weird little hut. When another car showed up, I begged to know the background on the hobbit house. The woman driving the car worked in the offices there and told me I was looking at the “hermit house,” built in the 1920s by some eccentric old man who once owned this land. “There’s a newspaper piece hanging on the wall in the lobby of my office,” she offered. I read the sketchy article and was hooked on the mystery of the “hermit of the Montrose woods.” Trips to the library revealed that the bewhiskered, barefoot man I’d first seen looking out at me from the framed newspaper report, Henry James Stuart, was the builder, and he was anything but a hermit. I discovered that he kept a logbook he asked his visitors to sign, and in one seven-year period some eleven hundred people came around to see him. I never saw the actual books, but one source claimed that six of the signatures belonged to Clarence Darrow, the noted Chicago lawyer of Scopes Monkey Trial fame.

JE: So you began this novel more than twenty years ago?

SB: No. I wrote the opening line of The Poet of Tolstoy Park in June 2003. But before that I’d written three magazine articles about Henry Stuart, and thought about him a great deal. Not obsessively, but with a certain intense interest in his story.

JE: And you finished the manuscript in a year?

SB: I completed the first draft in mid-February 2004, then put it away and let it cool for a month without even glancing at the pages. When I got the book deal in October 2004, I had already contacted the banker Ken Niemeyer, who owns the property where Henry’s hut sits, the man who instructed the bulldozers to work around the amazing little house, and I asked if he’d be willing to lease it to me. I told him I would restore it, and use it quietly. Ken was delighted with the idea, and we signed a lease agreement for nine years. My plan had been to get the work done on the hut and write part of the book on the premises, looking out windows Henry looked through eighty years ago. (Actually the windows and sashes had been destroyed, leaving the original frames, and I installed new windows.) But the writing outran the construction project, and I finished the book before I made the hut inhabitable. I used the thirty-day downtime from the manuscript to complete my renovations on Henry’s house. So I was able to do the entire first revision on my laptop sitting at a small oak table inside the hut. I flew to New York and handed off Henry’s story to my editor on the contract deadline, May 3, my agent Amy Rennert’s birthday. Diana went with me and we called the trip our second honeymoon. This whole thing has had a certain magical quality from the very beginning.

JE: If you’ve been writing for years, do you have other books and stories stockpiled?

SB: I have two other novels completed, A Sound Like Thunder, coming out from Ballantine on August 15, 2006, and Like Light Around a Bend in the River, that I’m allowing to “age” before I open it to readers. I have another novel in the works called The Tumble Inn and Sit Down Cafe. But the writing I’ve been doing for thirty years has been mostly nonfiction: articles, essays, press releases, and a weekly newspaper column, some dimestore philosophy that I cranked out for about three years. I ghost-wrote a book on Clarence Darrow. I published a book on brain hemisphere specialization that’s still in print, called A Yin for Change. And, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Rembrandt the Rocker, that I self-published. Back in creative writing classes at college I wrote the requisite number of short stories to get a passing grade, but those stories were really bad. The only short story I’ve written that I feel good about putting my byline on is one called “Traveling Light.” It was chosen for inclusion in an anthology of Alabama writers, Climbing Mount Cheaha (Fall 2004). I’m really excited to have slipped around to the other side of a bookstore counter to take a turn as a novelist. I never thought it would happen, especially as I close in on sixty.

JE: You wear a lot of different hats. You’re a husband and father of two boys still in elementary school, you founded Over the Transom Bookshop, you’re the editor of the annual anthology Stories from the Blue Moon Café, you’ve found a publisher for five new Southern authors in the last three years, and I don’t know what else. Where did you find the time to write The Poet of Tolstoy Park? Is there one thing that grabs your attention more than the other things you do?

SB: When I began this book I had just finished the novel I men­tioned earlier, writing from the time the family went to bed and the house got quiet until midnight or later. I was doing the work on Poet on pretty much the same schedule. The contract with Ballantine came when I’d only written forty pages, and I agreed to a six-month deadline. At that point, I knew I’d have to put in longer days to get the book completed on time. I was also nervous. I was once a building contractor, and this book deal struck me like, well–say I sold you a house based on showing you a front door. Now I’ve got to build a house that meets your expectations. Plus, you’ve paid me in advance. And, this is the weird part, I don’t show you the house until I’m completely finished. To cut down on some of that pressure, I made changes at my bookstore. I sold the used and rare inventory to my friend Martin Lanaux, who continues to sell those books from the storefront in Fairhope, sharing the space with me. I turned over the day-to-day operation to Martin, and now I have, shall I say, a quiet interest in the bookstore. Then, I spent most days at home in my study on the computer writing this novel. My family was totally supportive, and the writing came quite fast. It wasn’t like trance-channeling, or any such thing, but I can say that Henry’s voice filled my head and his story was always available to me when I sat down at the keyboard. I love to write; that’s my favorite hat to wear. I was a singer in a band six nights a week for three years, and I was an electronics technician in the Navy. I’m a good carpenter. I’ve sold cars and real estate and used tires off the back of a truck in Mississippi and Alabama. I got the degree and certification to teach English in public school. I’ve been a deckhand on a tugboat. I was a short-order cook. It’s been a wild ride, job-wise. But the consistent thread in the rug I’ve been weaving has been, and is, the writing, editing, and publishing. Even way back in the Navy I wrote press releases for them, to get myself out of certain duty assignments. It was a fair trade.

JE: The Poet of Tolstoy Park is a novel. The story, you say, was there for you when you sought to tell it; how much of it is fiction? Was there an actual Leo Tolstoy connection in Henry Stuart’s life? If not, why did you choose a Russian author as a mentor for Henry?

SB: My friend, the writer Tom Franklin, said that when you’re writing a novel based on fact, a little truth goes a long way. I’d say two-thirds of The Poet of Tolstoy Park arose from my imagination. But I believe I have conveyed the spirit of the man, if not the letter of his life, and I think I know Henry like I know my brother. The “facts” I had on Henry James Stuart would make a short list. One of the items on that list would be–and I have this from a couple of sources–Henry Stuart called his ten-acre parcel of land “Tolstoy Park.” I will add here that the truth I had to work with was indeed precious little and frequently wrong or contradictory. For instance, a simple error placed Henry’s alma mater in Missouri–Mount Union was in Alliance, Ohio. One account in a history book of the area spoke of the six months it took Henry to build his round, block hut. All you have to do is stand inside it and look at his hand-dated, hand-poured cement blocks and extrapolate that it took easily more than a year to build. Anyway, Henry Stuart called the hill where his hut was built “Tolstoy Park,” so naturally I believed that Henry was a fan of Tolstoy’s writings, and I fantasized that Anna Karenina was his favorite work. Maybe I was doing a little transference, because of the way Steve Yar­brough, a Mississippi writer and friend who teaches Anna Karenina as the perfect novel, feels about it. Later I discovered the greater like­lihood of the significance of Leo Tolstoy for my English-born rug weaver was Tolstoy’s social philosophy and religious beliefs. At the last moment, Henry changed his plan to move from Nampa, Idaho, to San Diego, and instead moved to Fairhope. Henry George founded Fairhope in 1894. While reading a little Oxford biography on Tolstoy–which, by the way, John, I bought at your Lemuria bookstore–I fell out of my chair to learn that Leo Tolstoy and Henry George wrote letters to each other. Then I knew why Henry moved to Fairhope instead of San Diego, and why he named his place Tolstoy Park.

JE: Were Tolstoy’s books popular among American readers in the early 1900s?

SB: If readers do a Web search, typing in Leo Tolstoy and Henry George, they will probably see a link to the reprint of an article by Victor Lebrun, Tolstoy’s personal secretary and friend, on the re­markable connection between these two great thinkers. In the open­ing paragraph, the reader discovers it was in 1885 that the Russian master “. . . happened to lay his hands on the books of the great American sociologist.” So, books–important books–have a way of finding their way into the hands of readers all around the world. As to Tolstoy’s popularity with American readers, consider this item I discovered: The U.S. Post Office, in 1890, prohibited the mailing of Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. Commenting on that action, Teddy Roosevelt, then governor of New York, called Tolstoy a “sexual and moral pervert.” I can say, then, with certainty that he was popu­lar enough to draw a politician’s ire. We can infer that Roosevelt, with his remark, catapulted him to even greater notoriety.

JE: I’m a bookseller, and I wonder who published Tolstoy in America? You mentioned books going through the post office; do you think most readers bought their books in bookstores?

SB: Back to the Web, to Advanced Book Exchange, or abebooks .com, where you can find rare-books dealers offering early printings of Tolstoy from Scribners in 1878 and 1906, for instance. There was an American first edition of War and Peace, published by William S. Gottberger in 1886, listed on abebooks.com as I write this, for more than $20,000. You will also find that Harper and Brothers published Tolstoy in America; and Thomas Y. Crowell; and Dodd-Mead. So Tolstoy had several early publishers in this country. I wonder: Were all these publishers able to offer Tolstoy’s work because the author himself went to court in Russia and abandoned the international copyrights to his work? Sonya, his wife, was able to stop him before he gave all his rights away, but the publishing rights to much of his work, as Tolstoy demanded, were up for grabs. And, I think, I hope–without knowing, John–that most readers went down the street to bookshops like yours and mine to get their books. By 1917, readers could have shopped at Barnes and Noble in New York City.

JE: If I designated a Leo Tolstoy shelf in my bookstore “Sonny Brewer’s Picks,” what titles would you have me stock? Where would you have a reader start? If you have a personal standout favorite, what establishes that book’s deeper meaning for you?

SB: Dare I admit this? I have begun, without finishing, both War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I have been known to feel really guilty about this–as a man who has loved to read since my pivotal and explosive boyhood reading experience with Charlotte’s Web, as a man with a degree in English and creative writing, as a bookseller, and, now the guilt flares again with your question addressed to me as a novelist. I’ll have to get help with this “issue” from the ghost of my friend, writer Richard Shackelford, who eschewed many dead writers because, simply, they were dead. Now that my buddy has himself eased on over to the other side, he’ll have new thoughts on the matter. I have, however, read the tiny books by Tolstoy: What Does it Profit a Man? and What Men Live By. I read his story, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” But my favorite work by Leo Tolstoy is the author’s own favorite work, only just published in English, A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts. The text is just what the title suggests, and the source material amounts to quotes topically organized, collected from a staggering variety of people and sources: ancient and con­temporary, from Lao-Tzu and the Gita, to Schopenhauer and the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Tolstoy worked almost obsessively on this book in his last years. It was immensely popular in Russia until the revolution, but under Communism it was banned. After nearly a century, this is the first-ever English-language edition of the book Leo Tolstoy considered to be his most important contribution to humanity.

JE: What has your reading list this last year been? In your reading life, is there an author who has had significant influence on your writing life?
SB: Working backwards: James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce; three unpublished novel manuscripts; Mark Spraggs’s An Unfinished Life; a wonderful and disturbing book about Mississippi artist Walter Anderson called Approaching the Magic Hour; two novel type­scripts (which I also edited); Bev Marshall’s Right as Rain; William Gay’s unpublished novel Cut Flowers; Alistair Macleod’s incredible book of stories, Island. I have fallen in love with the writing of Gabriel García Márquez. These are the ones uppermost in my mind. My first real training as a writer was in the Journalism department at the University of Alabama, where I was taught to write straight, clean, and without author intrusion, and that set me up to really like Hemingway. On the other hand, William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy probably had the most influence on my own writing, to wit: my stunned awe of their work kept me from attempting fiction. What’s the point? If you can’t do it this well, you’re a dilettante, I told myself. But then I noticed that God didn’t stop with a couple of fine examples of pine trees. There are countless pine trees out there. So I decided to write some imperfect fiction, plant my own tree in the forest beginning with a novel that would answer possible questions my children might someday ask about how I grew up. I tried to avoid making it another hee-haw memoir-turned-novel, but there’s my daddy in there posing as my protagonist’s daddy, and the daddy’s got a jug of whisky and a razor strop drawn back to swing down on the back of the nerdy son. It’s not great literature, but I needed to write it. And, I’ll revise it and make it better.

JE: In my assessment, it is the mark of true literary greatness when the work, which is by its nature unchanging, remains vital and of strong impact to generation after generation of readers whose culture, society, and very environment is incredibly dynamic and changes remarkably in short periods of time. Is Leo Tolstoy’s writing an influence on you today, and will it remain so in ten and twenty years?

SB: I read that Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, said there’s only been one Christian since Christ, meaning one who is willing to live the life advised by Jesus, right down to giving everything away. That person, he said, was Saint Francis. I’m inclined to agree, except I’d make it two peo­ple. The second would be Leo Tolstoy–if we only talk about famous people. I believe, too, there are others living the Gospel virtues among the simple folk whose names we don’t find in the encyclopedia, and some of them don’t even go to church. Like Henry James Stuart. I’d say it’s Leo Tolstoy’s thinking–far more than his writing–that is an influence on me today. And in the sense that his understanding of the complexities of the human spirit and the call to exceed the limitations of human ego are a dead-on match with the best thinking I’ve ever found in other books, yes, Leo Tolstoy will remain an influence on me as long as my mind functions reasonably well.

JE: Is there an entwining of the lives of Henry Stuart and Leo Tolstoy and Sonny Brewer?

SB: Same idea. I feel Tolstoy there in the background, with Black Elk and other great souls and teachers, but I also sense a certain dis­tance from them and from him. Too far beyond me, perhaps. It’s as though I can see Tolstoy there across a small lake, can feel his power and intellect, but I can sense, too, the breadth of the moving water that separates me from where he stands on that other shore. Perhaps a fog at twilight partly obscures my view of him, while I believe his eyes have me sharply in their focus. On the other hand, I feel so clearly a certain nearness, spiritually and psychologically, to Henry Stuart–well, I guess there is even an emotional counterpart, too. I say that because I am sometimes overwhelmed with the dichotomy of the estrangement of man from his fellows, most evident in death and the departure from the physical company of those we know and love, and the ultimate connectedness, the unity, of all human beings in the experience of a brief life on this planet. It’s over the top of course, I think, when people tell me I look like the old man in the photographs. But nonetheless there is for me a sense of rapport with Henry that becomes, at times, exquisite. When I wrote about him, I ceased to concern myself with the facts of his historical presence in Baldwin County, Alabama, and, on the other hand, I felt perfectly attuned to his ghost floating above the land, homesteading chambers of my heart. I made this point to a group I was addressing some time ago, saying that I was not after the historical Henry, that I didn’t wish to reconcile in my novel the contradictions in reports of the facts of his life. I referred to the New Testament, and said that in Matthew’s gospel it was reported that Jesus was departing from Jericho with a big crowd in tow; the same event in Luke’s gospel, on the other hand, reported that as he drew near to Jericho, a crowd gathered. I said that the contradiction didn’t concern me, that I didn’t really care that only one statement could be accurate, making the other account, obviously, incorrect. I later got a letter from a lady in attendance who took me to task for bending the truth of the Bible to suit my own literary purposes, saying there was perfectly acceptable scholarship that explained away what was only an apparent contradiction, and left intact the inerrancy of scriptures. She missed my point. It does not matter to me at what mile marker on the road Jesus was. Truth stands above and apart from numbers and letters and aca­demic query.

JE: Leo Tolstoy died in a train station, correct? Can you provide details? Henry Stuart dies on a train. Did the former event serve the purposes of your novel?

SB: Tolstoy had a large family, several children–thirteen, I think. According to biographers and his own journals, he was frequently unhappy in his marriage owing to deeply cut differences in philosophy, worldview, and sense of priorities. I don’t automatically take Leo’s side. Sonya bore him all those children, and meant, as most mothers do, to feed and care for them. She could not bring herself to give away the family’s wealth and live among the peasants, as Leo wanted to and did. That matter, for instance, of Tolstoy giving away his copyrights. Tolstoy wanted, some say, to abandon all, including his family, and go on a walkabout. Well, he did, finally, but only lived for less than a month into his flight from home, dying curled up in a train station in 1910. Henry Stuart leaves his family and friends, and takes flight to Alabama, albeit for medical reasons. But then when the medical threat is miraculously past, still Henry doesn’t go home to his two sons. Both Tolstoy and Stuart were bent on–if you’ll allow a cultural shift here–their own vision quest. It doesn’t matter a whit that Tolstoy only lived briefly following his decision to leave home. He did it. So did, as a biographical fact, Henry. In reality, Henry did not die on a train, peacefully slipping into that long sleep, his long home. He died of cancer, suffering badly. I suppose, then, I consciously gave to Henry more of what I would have wanted for Leo Tolstoy, and more of the way I wish it had happened for Henry. If life is something like a train ride, and death our last stop, I guess it’s something of a liter­ary device, too, in The Poet of Tolstoy Park. I think I remember my writing teacher, John Craig Stewart, telling me I had the license to warp things around for the sake of story. It is better when there is an intermingling of some truth into the fiction.

JE: Like the name of the town in Alabama where Henry moves? Fairhope? In a story like this one, given its thematic colors, you could not have dreamed up a better name for Henry’s destination. And the next town south on Mobile Bay is Point Clear.

SB: Precisely. If it weren’t the truth, it would be hokey. The original settlers who founded Fairhope in 1894 were said to have looked around at the place they’d come to from Iowa, and one of them said, “I believe we will have a fair hope of success here.” The point is clear, I think.

JE: Did Fairhope get the hurricanes that you describe in your novel?

SB: Yes, on September 18, 1926, the Alabama Gulf Coast was bludgeoned by one of the worst hurricanes to ever strike the U.S. coast, twelfth on the list, actually. A total of 243 people died in the storm according to National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association documents, but that number has never been confirmed. Hundreds were listed as missing. The first hurricane Henry encounters, however, was a product of atmospheric disturbances in my imagination.

JE: So, did the hurricane that actually hit actually have the pivotal impact on Henry Stuart that you write into the novel?

SB: I believe it did. If you stood beside me in Henry’s hut today, I’d point upward to the last courses of blocks in his domed roof. The way he had to lay them, each course inset a bit to create the arch, would allow you to see dates scratched onto the blocks. You’d see that several of the next to the last course of blocks bear the date “9-17-26.” So, Henry pours blocks into his forms and dates them. The next morning he awakens to the world coming apart at the seams. That’s a fact. The last course of blocks in the ceiling is dated “9-27-26.” He took ten days off from his block work. Doing what? I believe the plight of his neighbors, the wreckage of their homes and property, the harm they’d suffered, called him out to help them, end­ing his self-absorption. That’s what he did for those missing ten days. He took an ax and a saw and the muscles in his back and arms and the love in his heart and he gave his neighbors a hand to ease their hurting. That’s what I think. That’s what I wrote.

JE: You wrote that several famous people visited Fairhope in its early days. Did they?

SB: Yes: Sherwood Anderson, John Dewey, Sinclair Lewis, Clarence Darrow, and others. They all came to Fairhope.
JE: What drew them to a little town in Alabama?

SB: What if I say, as a crazy old woman once said to me, that vibrations in the soil magnetically attracted souls of the correct polarity? Whatever the reason, from the beginning to now–and there was recently like a half-page piece in the Wall Street Journal that addressed the appeal of Fairhope–creatively inclined individuals, artists, writers, and eccentrics find they feel at home here. Fairhope has more writers per capita than any other place in the country. A few years ago, three local writers shared concurrent spots on the New York Times bestseller list: W.E.B. Griffin, Jimmy Buffett, and Winston Groom.

JE: In the book, you put much emphasis on going barefoot. Your protagonist gave away his shoes. Is that what Henry Stuart really did?

SB: He did. I have now accumulated several photographs of Henry, and in every one of them he is barefoot. In one, he’s standing next to a woman who is all bundled up against the cold. A big, warm-looking hat and a huge coat. Henry’s barefoot as a possum. And this is a man with a degree in divinity. It’s a philosophical statement, not a fashion statement, for Henry. And shucking one’s shoes has connotations of openness in all cultures. What do they say? “If all the generals put away their hobnail boots, war would forever be put away.” I don’t know about that, but you get the point.

JE: And this gentle man, Henry, was a weaver. Is that, too, historical fact? I think it works so well symbolically. Do you weave?

SB: Yes, Henry listed his occupation on the1920 Nampa, Idaho, census form: “weaver–rugs.” And I am awaiting the phone call from someone who tells me he has one of Henry Stuart’s rugs, and is willing to part with it! No, I don’t weave. I sat down at a loom at the chil-dren’s museum in Santa Fe last summer and pulled some yarn through the warp for a few minutes. Completely intriguing. It requires incredible patience to take a thousand yards of yarn and craft a single three-foot by five-foot rug. And, yes, how could I have dreamed up a better trade for a religious man who is also a poet who refuses to go to church? A man whose life has a broad margin. A man whose very life seems a magic gift. A man whose life, as Carole King sang, has been “a tapestry of rich and royal hue.”

JE: Henry’s healing was a gift–which I had no problem believing. But for some won’t it be viewed as supernatural?

SB: The Harvard-trained physician and author Andrew Weil has a book called Spontaneous Healing. He lays, with the scientific creden­tials to back it up, a foundation of medical possibility for the body– everybody’s body–to accomplish a spontaneous regenerative, curative function to heal itself of illness. Viewed as a cause and effect relationship, it makes us wonder: What is the causative element? Some would say it is God. Others would say it is human willpower. Some would combine those factors. What would you say? I’m sorry, John, you’re asking the questions.

JE: Thank you for remembering. I’m interested in the poetry in the book. Some passages are quoted from well-known poets. Did you write Henry Stuart’s poems?

SB: If it is a good poem, I wrote it. If it’s weak, the historical Henry did it. Sorry, just kidding. No, I must confess and claim the poems Henry wrote in this novel. I found a poem written and published in the Fairhope Courier newspaper in 1930 entitled “To the Sage of Tolstoy Park.” I blinked and it became the “poet” of Tolstoy Park, and another facet of my protagonist was born in my imagination. And I got my title. I found no poems that Henry wrote. But I easily heard his voice in my mind saying and scribbling lines.

JE: Have you published poetry?

SB: No. Without false humility, I am not a poet. I think about poems. I love certain poems. I love certain poets. And I have tremendous respect for the craft of poetry and don’t wish to dabble more than the dabbling that I let Henry do in this novel. It is a noble art, and its competent practitioners are geniuses.

JE: You did not use the word “Zen” in The Poet of Tolstoy Park. Yet, I seem to detect a “Zen-like” essence in this novel. Are you aware of it?

SB: I think so, John. I was born into a Baptist house in middle Alabama and followed the party line and was baptized when I was a boy. Have you ever thought that none of us chooses the “religion of our nurture”? Anyway, I had a head full of questions for my preacher, who told me, essentially, that my doubting queries were sinful. So I asked Mama if I had to keep going to church; she asked me why, I told her, and she said I did not have to go. God bless my sweet mother. I avoided the church question until I joined the Navy and found myself in close company with a lot of deeply religious people of all faiths. I set out, obsessively, to discover where the different brands of religion parted company, over what dogma, over which tenets of their faith, over what passages of scripture. Where did they overlap and agree? In the course of my study, I read a lot of books on Zen thought. It’s not a religion, you know–you could be a Zen Catholic, a Zen Jew, maybe even a Zen Baptist, if you were willing to see, to look at things honestly and without fear. Zen is a way of looking at human behavior, simply seeing without distortion who we are and why we act the way we do. Which is really hard to do, I think. Our culture, its social imprinting, is so strong as to be almost indelible. You know you just can’t take that Baptist boy and “unborn” him and start him over in a Catholic home. Baptist-born and Baptist-raised, and, most of the time, Baptist-you’ll-die. Somehow I got shook loose from the family-church tree, and hit the ground and rolled all over the orchard. I came to rest with a Zen perspective, grown out of Christian roots that I do not seek to cut away. But I did not purposefully inject Zen into Henry’s story. I had no agenda like that.

JE: You did not put the books on Henry’s shelves, so to speak?

SB: No, and I know you mean figuratively, but the books I described in Henry’s small library inside his hut in Tolstoy Park were literally listed in a newspaper article I found.

JE: You use a newspaper feature as your prologue, and it contains that information. So, is it the genuine article?

SB: I revised it only slightly. The original was reported by Milford W. Howard, who wrote a standing feature for the Birmingham News Age, though I cannot determine the precise span of its run. Howard called himself the “Vagabond Reporter.” I expect members of his family still live in Birmingham, though I didn’t try to contact them. I know that he bought a rug from Henry, and I can’t stop thinking that it may still be hanging on a wall.

JE: And if Henry were alive today, what titles do you think he’d be reading? What of your own books would you lend to Henry and ask him to read?

SB: He would be laid-up watching cable television, and his entertainment center would be so big he wouldn’t have room for book­cases. I’d try to rescue him from his stupor by blocking his view with copies of The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark. Finally, Suttree would get his eye. I’d read him the first page, and he would be saved. A year later, Henry’d come knocking at my door, carting an armload of Wendell Berry.

JE: But Henry’s not alive today, and nor will we be in fifty years. Is there something that Henry Stuart and Leo Tolstoy and Sonny Brewer would agree on that we can “take away” from The Poet of Tol­stoy Park, which would help us reflect on death and dying?


SB: I think the three of us could agree with my friend Ray Parmley, a retired doctor who’s lived on a sailboat for twenty-five years; he’s close to ninety now, still on his beautiful Hinckley, the Illusion. “I only want one thing, Sonny,” he said to me. “To die in peace, com­pletely ready to leave here.” How will you get there, I wanted to know. “By seeing clearly life’s illusions for what they are.” When I asked him how he’d know he was there, he said, “My friends will tell me. I’ll see it in their eyes when they look at me.” And how will you know if you backslide, I asked. “My friends will be afraid to tell me. But I’ll see it in my own eyes when I look in the mirror.” The truth that will set us free is there for the seeing. We have only to open our eyes.

Praise

Praise

Advance praise for The Poet of Tolstoy Park

"...the heady blend of literary and philosophical references and some fine character writing make this a noteworthy debut."
-Publishers Weekly

“The Poet of Tolstoy Park is one of those unique and wonderful books that sings a hymn of praise to the philosophical and spiritual part of daily life.”
–Pat Conroy, author of My Losing Season

“Sonny Brewer writes the way people think and talk, if, of course, those people are poets. The language in this novel is lovely where it needs to be and gristle-tough where it is called for. . . . I loved this book because I love to read, and because I love to write, and I envy the skill in this as much as I loved the story that the writer’s skill embraces.”
–RICK BRAGG, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of All Over but the Shoutin’

“Without literary pretense and in good back porch storytelling fashion, Sonny Brewer stands his characters up and turns them around so you know them front and back.”
–WINSTON GROOM, author of Forrest Gump

“An intoxicating and loving tribute to an extraordinary man, Henry James Stuart, whose life story is one of the most fascinating adventures I have ever read. . . . Written in language both lush and luminous, Sonny Brewer’s debut novel is sustenance for both the mind and the soul. I believe that this novel is destined to become a literary treasure, and Brewer is destined to become a major voice in American literature.”
–BEV MARSHALL, author of Walking Through Shadows and Right as Rain

“A celebration of essential simplicity and the dignity of work. Sonny Brewer has given us a story of exploration and discovery, of the wisdom of plainness, of living in touch with each approaching and passing moment. You will not want to put it down.”
–ROBERT MORGAN, author of Gap Creek and This Rock

“With prose that mirrors the grace of his protagonist, Brewer seamlessly merges time and place with the interior landscape of the heart.”
–WILLIAM GAY, author of Provinces of Night





From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. This is a fictionalized account of a true story. How accurate do you think Brewer’s portrayal of Henry Stuart might be, and does this affect your enjoyment of the book?

2. What qualities do you most admire in Henry, and what do you think we can learn from his story?

3. What do you think cured Henry?

4. After outliving his diagnosis, why do you think Henry chose not to return to his sons in Idaho?

5. Does Henry Stuart remind you of anyone you know? Do you think a story like his could take place today?

6. Brother O’Neil says: “Books and writing are agents for the accumulation of ideas and your minds are overfull.” What do you think of this statement, and what do you think of Henry’s strategy to quiet his “overfull” mind?

7. Author Sonny Brewer is the editor of Stories from the Blue Moon Café, an anthology of Southern writing. What do you think makes a novel “Southern,” and do you consider The Poet of Tol­stoy Park a Southern novel?

8. How would you characterize the female characters in this novel?

9. Henry believed that “no work is wasted,” that work, philosophi­cally, is a means without regard to its end. What could be the value to a man of constructing a house of concrete if he might die before he finishes it?

10. What do you think motivates Henry to go barefoot? What do you think of the statement, “If all the hobnail boots were put away, wars would end”?

11. Do you think this book would make a good movie?

12. Do you wish the author had written more romance into the re­lationship between Henry and Kate? Why or why not?

13. What do you think is in the shoe box that Thomas gives Henry at the end of the book?

14. An osprey appears to Henry when he falls down in the creek. What do you think the osprey symbolizes?

15. What role did Black Elk play in Henry Stuart’s life?

16. John Lennon sang “Imagine” with lyrics that imagined people living at peace in a world with “no religion too.” Do you agree that would be a good idea? Henry did not go to church, but did he have “religion”?

17. When the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke exhorted readers to “be ahead of all parting” what did he mean, and how might this relate to The Poet of Tolstoy Park?

18. At the end of the book, the author fast-forwards the nar­rative about twenty years. If you were going to write of those “missing” years of Henry Stuart, what would your favorite scene be?

19. Robert Frost said, “Writing is as good as it is dramatic. Period.” Where’s the drama in The Poet of Tolstoy Park?

20. How would you characterize the author’s writing style?

21. If you could rename this book, what would you name it?


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