Exile on Maine street

A collection of modern-day allegories captures the moral forces of small-town life.

HE HAWTHORNE Brown's stories not to past authors of the northeast.

HE HAWTHORNE Brown's stories not to past authors of the northeast. Photograph: Stephanie Permain

When Jason Brown was growing up in Hallowell, a small town in Maine, he and his friends thought their prospects for getting out were grim. “When I lived there in the ’70s and ’80s, it was so confining and narrow, I couldn’t wait to leave,” the 38-year-old fiction writer recalls. “We felt like there was no possibility of getting away, so there was this whole mythology around escaping.”

Hallowell, it turns out, didn’t quite have the iron grip that the author feared; after high school, he made it to nearby Bowdoin College and later to the Bay Area to study creative writing at Stanford (he currently teaches at the University of Arizona). But the ambition-curdling locale of this writer’s youth still looms large. In his new story collection, Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work, Brown creates a pervasive aura of small-town confinement: All the book’s loosely linked tales are set in the recent past in a small fictional town called Vaughn, Maine, a place where gossip and judgment are a way to pass the time and keep people in their place. Escape from the community’s watch comes hard, and is achieved most successfully by dying (Brown’s preferred method: drowning in the Kennebec River) or, in more than one case, by faking death.

Brown’s fiction is girded by a deep understanding of the shadow cast by the region’s Christian history (the title is lifted from high-minded witch-hunt proponent Cotton Mather). He has a gift for crisp, angular sentences, some of which are embedded with a quiet humor; a disgruntled man’s eyes are “watery and stunned, fixing on one object in the room after another as if he might spot at any moment the door through which he would flee.”

What pushes the book far beyond sturdy realism, though, is its eerie grasp of the tensions between people and their assumptions (often wrong-headed) about each other. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Brown is fascinated by the shunned citizen, but here the clashes are not dictated by religion so much as faulty suspicion. In the place of Young Goodman Brown flirting with Satan in the forest, we get two teenagers fleeing into the woods, pursued by a mob with questionable motives. “There’s definitely an allegorical element to what I do,” the author says. “But I try to complicate the allegory, so it’s not just some 19th-century morality tale.”

One quality that makes these stories feel unmistakably new is Brown’s polyphonic narrative style—his seamless, oddly cinematic shifts among points of view. In “The Lake,” we witness, with a girl named Katie, a boy fall through the ice and to his death; then the narration grazes by the victim, who is looking back at the girl as he plummets; a good deal of the rest of the story focuses on how no one else in Vaughn realizes that Katie witnessed the accident, and how this affects her. “When I was writing, I was watching Terrence Malick films over and over, especially The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven,” Brown says. “Those films have this weird thing where he’s diverting you away from a more traditional story line, and the atmosphere is always more of a character than the characters.”

This technique also helps Brown drive home his most lacerating observation, which is that a lot of his characters’ moral judgments—and their pursuit of what’s good for the community—are actually driven by unexpressed desire and self-interest. The lecherous gym teacher “saves” a female student from her bad-reputation boyfriend. A girl becomes determined, without much evidence, that a local photographer has done something terrible to her sister. “I was very aware of characters who became blinded by their own anxieties and fantasies,” Brown says. “The people are isolated in the town, but they’re also isolated in their own points of view, and can’t really see what’s going on in their own life.”

The author is aware that his book reenacts the sort of judgments he’s so good at picking apart, but he’s not acting high and mighty. “It’s only my take on it,” he humbly points out. And besides, even at their harshest, these stories derive some of their complexity from a deep fondness for Vaughn. “Ever since I moved away, I have longed to be back in a small community with a history and an identity,” he says. It’s probably a good thing that Brown left Maine, but we should be happy that a part of his imagination remains stranded there.

Why the Devil… (Open City, $14 paperback) is out now. Brown reads Mon 26 and Wed 28.