By: Carter Martin
Reviewed by: Penne J. Laubenthal
Xlibris Press, 2007
Carter Martin’s debut novel Kelbrn is the story of a modern day Odysseus, Miles Kelley, whose wanderings take him not only through the first fifty years of twentieth century America but also across the country itself from Wisconsin to New York to North Carolina and finally to California. Miles’ journey parallels the movement of modern America from rural to industrial from dairy farms to textile mills from East to West from idealism to disillusionment.
The saga of Miles Kelley, Irish Catholic grandson of immigrants, is a bildungsroman with elements of the kuntslesrroman. In the tradition of his literary prototypes, Stephen Dedalus and Eugene Gant, Miles rejects both father and church and sets out to find himself in a world from which he feels increasingly alienated.
The three women with whom Miles is involved are like spools around which he winds and unwinds the thread of his life. The motif of doomed love is reinforced in the novel through references to Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and Jim and Jewel in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.
Two symbols in the novel provide Miles with his only sense of connection: the windmill and the banjo. The windmill is his touchstone for the land of his childhood, and the banjo’s fragile strings connect him with his dead father.
At one point Miles believes he has finally succeeded in making things right. He restores an old plantation which he calls Kelbrn (his Tara) in North Carolina, marries, erects a windmill, and rears a family. He even becomes wealthy as an accidental inventor succeeding where his father, a deliberate inventor, had failed.
Miles finds comfort in writing "grille" poems—patterned poems in which another poem is imbedded. The novel itself appears to be laid over the grille or grid of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. At the end of Kelbrn, the reader is left with either Albert Camus (“there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”) or Walker Percy (“how to live from one ordinary minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.”)
Who is Miles Kelley and what is he searching for? Is he the tortured and alienated artist, the disillusioned idealist, or is he, as Conrad’s Jim fears he might be, a moral coward? As with Jim, the reader has difficulty drawing a conclusion about Miles. Will he ever be able to "make something right out of something terribly wrong”?
Penne Laubenthal, professor emeritus of English at Athens State University, writes for the Web site Swampland: A Field Guide to the South (http://www.swampland.com).