Phillip Lewis on the Literary Easter Eggs in His Novel The Barrowfields

Detail from cover of The Barrowfields

Editor's Note:

Phillip Lewis is a lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Barrowfields is his latest novel. He joins Signature to discuss the myriad literary influences that have gone into his writing, from the Bible to Tennessee Williams.

The Barrowfields traces the fates and ambitions of a father and son across the decades, centered in a small Appalachian town that simultaneously defines them and drives them both away. The father is a writer, brilliant and eccentric, who perceives that time moves differently for himself than for others. Transplanted by odd circumstance to the high mountains of North Carolina where his erudition is not understood, he installs his family in a hillside mansion built of iron and glass, and spends years toiling away at what he believes will be a great and towering creative work.

The subject of his work—his beloved mother—dies before he can complete it. His devastation at this and other tragedies brings about his dramatic departure and divides the family irrevocably, leaving his wife, his son Henry, and a younger daughter, Threnody, bereft and adrift. Years later, Henry, the book’s narrator, reveals his father’s story as he tells the story of his own life. In doing so, he finally comes to terms with his father’s departure, and takes the first steps in finding forgiveness.

An overarching theme in The Barrowfields is the importance of books in the lives of the Aster family. Literature is surely the dominating force for all of them, particularly Henry and his father, the latter being a writer whose entire world revolves around books, writing, and the written word. In order to communicate this idea most effectively, I embedded literary references throughout the text, some overt, some more subtle, others just for fun, like Easter eggs. For a reader to identify and recognize the various allusions is not critical to a full understanding of the story, but the allusions should lend additional layers of meaning for anyone who cares to look for them.

Start with Old Buckram, the fictional town in the North Carolina mountains where much of the story is set. Henry describes it as an “achromatic town high in the belly of the Appalachian Mountains . . . situated uneasily about as far north and west as you can go and still be inside the surveyed boundaries of North Carolina.” It’s a dark, insular town with one funeral home, paltry shops, and abandoned railroad tracks that run in from the north. Old Buckram derives its name from a material known as “buckram,” which is a type of coarse linen that is stiffened with glue and used to make book covers. My idea was to have the story take place in Old Buckram, which is to say, within the covers of an old book. And it goes on from there.

In depicting Old Buckram in all its haunting bleakness, I wanted to convey a sense of the primitive religiosity and latent superstition present in the town. Part of this lay in the notion that, in Old Buckram, persons skeptical of a literal and unacademic understanding of the Bible (such as the Asters) were, in the minds of the locals, condemned to an eternity in hell upon their death. To this end, I created dark and austere parts of Old Buckram that were representative of this bleakness and unforgiving religiosity and gave them names such as Abbadon Creek, Avernus, and Ben Hennom, all of which have some extrinsic significance.

As just one example, Avernus is, in the book, a family cemetery set up on top of a hill where the engraving on the tombstones, “if there ever had been any, was so eroded by time and weather that it was no longer visible.” The cemetery is a desolate, cheerless place with few trees and a monochrome sky overhead. It is here that members of the Aster family will be buried when they pass. The name Avernus derives from a volcanic crater in Cumae, Italy that gave off noxious gases which killed birds flying overhead. This is suggested by the word’s etymology (it means, “no birds”). Virgil, in Book 6 of the Aeneid, uses the name Avernus to signify the entrance or gates to the underworld, and this is the sense of the word for which I use Avernus in The Barrowfields.

Character names get a similar treatment, like the mountain preacher Harold Specks, who “had no special insight into the machinations of God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit . . . or the schemes of the demons, but the certitude with which he condemned sinners to hell elevated him to the head of his church at a young age.” Harold, who chews a piece of slippery elm and carries a Bible he hasn’t read, was given his name in the book as a reference to the word “haruspex,” a species of priest in ancient Rome who practiced the dubious art of divination on the basis of what could be seen in the entrails of dead animals. It was probably Mencken who broadened the meaning of haruspex to include all unlearned charlatans and mountebanks (another Mencken favorite), and that is essentially the meaning to be applied here.

Much of the story in Old Buckram takes place in a hillside mansion the narrator refers to as the “vulture house,” which is described in the book as a “monstrous gothic skeleton” that “towered black and malefic into the gray of the cindered sky.” Behind the vulture house was an immense forest that “ran up the mountain for hundreds of acres over boulder and crag.”

After moving into the vulture house, Henry’s father names these woods the “Gnarled Forest,” a reference to Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, which describes a hellish grove where fat, winged harpies feed on the leaves of the gnarled trees that house the souls of men who, having “sought refuge in death from scorn,” took their own lives. The father, being a person of exceptional literacy, gave the woods this name of literary heritage quite purposefully, perhaps foretelling events to come and raising the question of the extent of the father’s prescience regarding his own life and eventual fate.

A further literary allusion appears in chapter 36, as Henry sits alone at a grand piano in the center of the vulture house after the rest of his family has fled elsewhere. As darkness fills the house and he consumes wine to excess, his mood grows increasingly despairing to the point that he can no longer tolerate the sound of the piano and his own playing. To demonstrate this transformation of mood and perspective, I’ve included a reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp,” but more importantly, to his “Dejection: An Ode.”

Coleridge writes about an Eolian harp (or Aeolian lute; same thing) in both poems. In the former, pensive Sara rests sweetly upon Samuel’s arm and all is delightful and the “long sequacious notes” from the Eolian harp “over delicious surges sink and rise.” In “Dejection: An Ode,” however, Samuel is, as the title implies, dejected, and his moods casts a pall on the lute’s music. He writes of the “dull sobbing draft, the moans and rakes / Upon the strings of this Aeolian lute, which better far were mute.” Similarly, for Henry, after playing for some time and then descending toward a depression of his own, “the piano, old and disconsonant, began to jangle like a band of drunken minstrels. The keys struck and raked upon the wires and grated upon my ears.”

Another instance may be found in chapter 42, as Henry and his girlfriend, Story, make their way up the hill to the vulture house one warm, sunlit afternoon. While the mansion never sheds its malefic aura, on this day the midsummer green of the surrounding fields “caused the baleful house to fade momentarily from view and brought to my mind a happy, nostalgic vision of Scott and Zelda playing on the terrace of the Grove Park Inn, Scott in his plus fours and Zelda resplendent in her clothes picked out special for the summer hotel.”

The chief reference here is the “clothes for a summer hotel,” which is the title of a bitterly desperate play by Tennessee Williams about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald that portrays the honest tragedy of their circumstance. Despite the pleasantly nostalgic context apparent in this excerpt, the scene was written with an overlay of foreboding, and the reference to the doleful Tennessee Williams play was designed to further a sense of dread just outside one’s awareness.

Beyond these examples, there are further allusions and references to works by Herman Melville, Thomas Wolfe, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, J. R. R. Tolkien, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Beryl Markham, William Butler Yeats, John Keats, Robert Frost, William Styron, Lewis Carroll, Isak Dinesen, George Gordon Byron, A. E. Housman, Douglas Adams, Edwin Abbot, Norton Juster, and more. All of these spring from Henry’s mind as he is describing the world around him and recounting the tragic, yet at-times hopeful, experiences he recalls from his childhood as the son of a doomed writer.

This is, I think, what you’d expect from a bright young man who grew up in the shadow of his father’s writing desk, surrounded by a gothic library of ten thousand books. His context for understanding the world is based on these literary works, and they have become an inextricable part of his character.