Basketville Sign and Shacks

Domain of Shacks with Sign is a part of Darby that gets destroyed in A Little More Than and destroyed again in its reincarnated version as a trailer park in Howard Elman's Farewell. The idea to use a sign in a novel came first. Back in the 1970s anybody driving on I–91, the new interstate highway in Vermont that ran roughly parallel to the Connecticut river boundary with New Hampshire, would notice how beautiful the landscape was, in part because Vermont did not allow anybody billboards. An exception was a huge sign that had a single word on it, Basketville, advertising a store in Putney, Vermont. The proprietors got away with the billboard by placing their sign across the river in New Hampshire which had no billboard ban.

Every time I drove the highway, especially at night, I would look for the sign. There was something, perhaps the incongruity of a lit-up billboard seeming to come out of the forest, that gave me a little thrill, followed by a twinge of shame for enjoying the moment.

One afternoon I was driving south on the highway to New York. In East Hampton, Massachusetts, something caught my attention. High above on the edge of a cliff stood a naked man facing the traffic and in all his male pride. I projected the mental picture of that guy to the top of the Basketville sign. Probably the image of Willow Jordan, Ollie's mentally deficient son, standing on top of the basketville sign naked facing the traffic on 91 is the most vivid image in A Little More Than Kin, maybe in all the Darby books. To that naked guy going solo, I say, thanks for the image, friend.

In A Little More Than Kin behind the Basketville sign, unseen from the highway, are shacks, my version of a Hooverville. The shacks are derived from my memory of a place and an idea. The idea is that the difference between a cabin and a shack is not in the structure, but in its locale and in the attitude toward aesthetics that its inhabitants hold. A small wood-frame dwelling all alone on a stream is quaint and lovely. It's a cabin. Same dwelling with a junky yard in a nice neighborhood is a shack. Inhabitant who clutters his tiny dwelling to suit his tastes and needs lives in a cabin. Inhabitant who clutters his tiny dwelling without reflection upon his acts lives in a shack.

My image of Ollie's shacks was the result of a newspaper ad I answered advertising a 10-foot aluminum johnboat with oars for $75. I can't remember the year, but it had to be before I published my first novel; I'm sure of that because I spent part of $4,000 advance for my first novel to buy a canoe to replace the johnboat. As it turned out the canoe was a mistake. For my purposes, fishing on small ponds with a fly rod, the johnboat was superior, easier to pack on the my truck, and it handled in wind better than the canoe. Plus too much time in a canoe using, no doubt poor paddle-technique, resulted in my ending up with a case of tendinitis in my right elbow.

My first thought when I bought the johnboat was that I could throw it in the back of my Datsun mini-pickup truck and be on a trout pond in minutes; my second thought was: I can afford this. I called the number in the ad, and a man with a weak voice gave me directions to his place, eight or so miles from Keene. His home turned out be a two-room shack in a compound of half a dozen or more shacks on a country road. There was a lot of junk laying around amid briers, rocks, random bushes, weeds, and weed trees; patches of tall grass, but no lawn, nor evidence there had ever been one.

It was obvious from the look of the owner why he wanted to sell. The man was a walking scarecrow; he had cancer and was too weak to fish; indeed, he could barely get around and converse. I knew I could talk him down on the price, but I paid the $75 anyway.

Later when I was writing A Little More Than Kin, I put those shacks in back of my version of the Basketville sign, hidden from the road. I also put something of the former boat owner into the physique of Ollie Jordan when Ollie is deteriorating from alcoholism and growing madness.

Ollie and his clan are squatting on the property of an absent landlord. Eventually, the sign is torn down, the shacks demolished, until there is nothing left but bare ground. In later Darby novels, a trailer park springs up. By the end of the Darby Chronicles, the trailer park too has vanished from the earth as if it had never existed. That's how it goes with the dwellings of the poor. We remember the rich and the privileged, their castles, walled cities, pyramids, great cathedrals, their sarcophagi. By contrast the poor live in fragile structures as well as fragile circumstances. The poor are not interred in vaults that last over the millennia; they do not live in stone castles, mansions, or penthouses in the big city. They leave very few paper trails. Like the creatures of the wilds, they build nests to raise young, seek shelter, only to be dispossessed by fickle weather, a landlord with a different idea, or their own wandering spirit.