By Susan Conley
Wolves, low-nosed and hungry, haunt Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods”. He jumps at their howls, “as if a hundred demons have been unleashed,” and scans the tree line for their silhouettes, though they never appear. American exploration literature is filled with barking and prowling creatures – in novels like “My Ántonia” by Willa Cather, “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper and especially the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where the children learn to fear them – symbols of the wild spirit of America, pushed further and further from society by man and machines. Wolves are America’s bit lost.
In Susan Conley’s “Landslide”, Jill Archer, a documentary filmmaker who lives on a small island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, calls her two sons “the wolves.” Charlie, seventeen, and Sam, 16, are not inherently dangerous, but they do have a wild and lively side; they growl and fight with it, complain about pasta or sandwiches, wander alone just outside its periphery. Like the creatures of Thoreau, they are distant and misunderstood, constantly out of reach.
Jill’s husband Kit, one of the last fishermen in their coastal town, was hospitalized in Nova Scotia after the engine of the swordfish boat he was working on exploded, breaking his right femur and potentially ending his career. In the aftermath of his accident, the uncertainty destabilizes the whole family. Sam posts a photo of himself smoking weed and begins to fail the tests. Charlie sinks into an imaginary life with his girlfriend and warm family. Jill stammers and fidgets, wondering how to get two boys through the gauntlet of 21st century masculinity.
Spoilage marks every aspect of ‘Landslide’, which is enveloping and warm, although slightly undercooked and sometimes caught off guard. The romance of Jill and Kit’s courtship – “the sweet early years”, when they “used kerosene lamps and made clearings for gardens and built the woodpile” in their creaky island home – a removes the varnish after almost two decades. Their love is anchored but negotiated: Kit is at sea for weeks, infatuated with who he is when he commands a ship and carries on his family line. The trauma erased Sam’s sense of self; two years earlier he had seen his closest friend fall between the planks of a crumbling bridge and drown in the water below. Now he has what his advisor calls “a will to self-sabotage”. Their town is a postcard of iconic New England, except trade has been wiped out by a collapsing ecosystem and industry. At one point, their own dock even floats.
This is not Maine de Thoreau, land of ancient greenery and abundance. “Red tides” color the sea waters. The closure of the shrimp fishery reduced the catch and income of captains and their crews. Jill notes that three wealthy Arizonas used the oil money to buy most of the fishermen’s houses in a nearby cove: “Now the brothers want to impose a new noise ordinance. They have been seen at town meetings talking with straight faces about the fact that they did not come to Maine to be woken up at 4 a.m. by lobster boats.
Small cracks have sprouted in every inch of the fortification around Jill’s life, and she struggles to keep them from spreading. Her questions are the same as all other mothers: How much leeway is the right amount? What is suffocating and what is protective? Motherhood is a shimmy, a step forward, a leap back. On his way to visit Kit in the hospital, Sam tells him that he will “probably have to try” drinking, for the sake of experimentation. Then again, he thinks, he might be the designated driver for friends. When she points out that underage drinking is illegal, Sam stops. “Now I messed it up,” she thinks.
Conley’s writing can be patchy, but there’s a lot of heart in it – a compliment that sounds suspicious but sincere. She has a knack for writing tiny and meaningful interactions. When the boys dismiss Jill’s pancakes as sour, she puts down her spatula and goes out to cry; they smash their faces against a window as a silly reward. Sam asks if they can read quietly next to each other, “a sweet leftover from when he was young that he hasn’t let go.” Charlie walks in and lays on them – a boyish gesture to physical fellowship – and they all surrender silently to love.
Jill has other concerns as well – her half-started documentary about their village, Kit’s flirtation with the cook on her boat – but mothering is a trash compactor that piles everything else into a condensed little square. And what does a mom do with boys these days? It’s not a question with an answer – no one other than the moralizers, it seems, really knows exactly how to make good men.
The cold sets in and the Archers leave their small island for the long, dark season ahead, just as Sam is out of reach and Jill worries more about her husband’s return than his absence. But winter is the season of the wolves: they are prepared for hardships, ready to woo and frolic even in the deepest snow banks. Conley isn’t afraid to inject a little hope that these creatures will find their way home.