IN LAURI ANDERSON’S darkly persuasive autobiographical novel Impressions of Arvo Laurila, an immigrant Finnish community of the remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan, once proud and vigorous, is collapsing. And when his main character flees in the face of personal disaster to Hawaii, then bizarrely to Nigeria, and finally to the remote Micronesian community of Truk, where everything also is collapsing, Anderson offers a depressingly powerful, sometimes confusing and consistently vivid portrayal of individual and societal breakdown.
As such, Anderson’s narrative is both intensely local and rich with suggestion of universal loneliness and dislocation. Pulsing at its heart are questions every Peace Corps Volunteer confronts head on, and because of this, Arvo Laurila is an important addition to the Peace Corps canon.
The farmhouses Laurila’s immigrant grandparents built live only in memory, he writes in an early chapter: “The outbuildings are also gone. The fields that they cleared have been taken over by ash and poplar forest. The area where their buildings once stood is now a town cemetery . . . the town itself is nearly gone. It became a kind of ghost of itself when the mines closed long before . . . lately he feels utterly alone and abandoned in the middle of America. He feels dislocated, fractured. Maybe it’s America. It’s a continent wide. And where are the loves we have had and have lost? Where? Arvo wants to know.”
This is not an easy book to read. It is not easy to read partly because its protagonist is denied redemption at every turn. It also is not easy to read because its organization and narrative strategies keep changing his characters shape-shifting from section to section.
At first the book seems true to its title offering a series of short, anecdotal profile chapters such as “Arvo’s Daughter’s Teacher,” “Arvo’s Friend Sulo,” and “Arvo’s Grandmother.” But then, on page 71, the writer declares, “Arvo, is, of course, the author,” and the book turns more directly to his personal tragedies: “I fabulize, I consume and mask. I add and subtract. I fictionalize. And yet the essential truth is still there. The pain is still there the emptiness.”
I have mixed feelings about this strategy. On one hand, many writers acknowledge that their novels are rooted in autobiography. I realize we’re all struggling with issues of the “I” and the fading and arguable credibility of an individual voice these days. But Anderson’s self-conscious slipping in and out of confession is unnerving and distracting. Why announce to the reader that the book is “true”? Why not just let the reader find his or her own essential truths? Anderson’s struggle with this issue seems disingenuous and unnecessarily self-tortured.
Nonetheless, eventually Anderson gets his bearings, in a way. Forty pages on, Arvo, “disguised as Eddie Maki, a young and single parent . . . flees to the Romantic South Sea and into the Eye of God.”
Here, in the chaotic and violent islands, the book settles down into a coherent, if tragi-comic, story. In the middle of Eddie Maki’s first night as a Dean of Students at a small church school, he’s awakened by another teacher desperately calling him to break up a knife fight among “drunks from the village who had come to rape girls” at the dormitory. In the ensuing melee, “the thought that he’d just plunged directly out of his idea of paradise into a garbage pit was not a pleasant thought,” the author wryly understates.
In this ruined paradise, as in Maki’s Upper Peninsula, tradition has succumbed to entropy and dissipation. Eddie visits a “canoe house,” now in disarray, where “little boys barely out of the toddling stage would come to listen to the older men talk about sailing . . . gradually they would grow more and more intimate with the sea until they finally blended into it, thought like it and instinctively acted with it. Now the young ones get drunk nearly every day and control of the sea is slipping away.”
Ultimately, Eddie has to confront legal trouble: a fight for custody of his small son Leif, the one innocent and anchoring love of his life. He begins to run with the boy to an even more remote island where Ann, his love interest, promises the real paradise can be claimed. But “he did not like the thought that he was being irretrievably separated from his self from the land and the people that defined him.” And so, he goes back to Michigan. The book ends with a glimmer of hope. Arvo Laurila’s fight for his beloved son, in the ancient land he knows, suggests the possibility of reclamation of the self.
Jan Worth-Nelson contends that her autobiographical 2006 Peace Corps novel Night Blind, departed far from “the truth.” She teaches writing at the University of Michigan / Flint, and loves the Upper Peninsula. Lake Superior, the backdrop for some of the action in Impressions of Arvo Laurila, is by far her favorite Great Lake. Like the former mining towns in the UP, Worth-Nelson's longtime home town of Flint has been largely abandoned by industry and, like the UP, has paid a steep price.