I recently read Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s latest book, Graphic the Valley, and I have some thoughts about it. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you I know the guy. We’re not friends, but I do like him. One time, at the birthday party of a mutual friend, he and I got to talking about writing. Everyone was ordering expensive micro-brews from the bar like suckers–except Peter. He had a twelve-pack of some piss-water beer in his backpack. It’s hard not to admire a guy like that.
So, the book.
Graphic is a re-telling of the Samson and Delilah narrative in the biblicalBook of Judges. This serves only to structure the narrative and not as any sort of moral compass. In place of Israelites, we have the original inhabitants of the Yosemite Valley, and instead of Philistines, it’s the Indian tribe that sold them out to the American military. It’s an interesting reversal; if a straight allegory were to be made, the originals would be the Philistines, Samson would be fighting for the usurpers and the American Military might be a stand in for God. But the hero of Graphic has a more naturalistic claim on the land, rather than a divine one–his people were there first. Nature stands in the place of God throughout the book, in fact.
The core of the story’s conflict lies in the tension between two versions of the human ideal. On the one hand, you have man existing as a part of a natural ecosystem. On the other, you have man as a political or social animal; he finds his place in a social ecosystem. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s Genealogy Of Morals, the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy, the triumph of the herd over the charismatic strong man. I picture the Homeric heroes breaking like waves against interlocked Hoplite shields.
In one of my favorite passages, Graphic’s narrator (the stand in for Samson) talks about the encroachment of a fast food chain into the Yosemite Valley Park. He knows the restaurant represents some form of evil but can’t reconcile that fact with how good the french fries smell–even nature’s freedom fighter is powerless to resist the draw of refined civilized technique. Indeed, his quest is to rid the Valley of defiling civilization and yet he lives off the food scraps civilization leaves behind. He, like Samson, fails morally by not fully forsaking the enemy’s charms.
An act of God, nature itself, finally redeems the Valley–it’s a conceit at the end of the book, but, remarkably, it’s what makes the story ring true in regards to human nature. Even as the book judges us for the evils of our society, it recognizes that any one individual is powerless against those evils. It would take a miracle to untangle the mess humanity has made of itself and put us back in our proper place in nature.