Thursday, August 9, 2012

All Roads Lead to Wells

A couple days ago Christina, who is staying with us in advance of her September exhibition, presented me with a copy of All Roads Lead to Wells: Stories of the Hippie Days (Caitlin Press, 2012) by Susan Safyan. Later that afternoon I found myself flipping through the book's 300 pages, the way one does when there are pictures inside. Two hours later I had read what amounted to the book's middle-third and decided to "begin" it again at bedtime.

Like Claudia Cornwall's At the World's Edge: Curt Lang's Vancouver, 1937-1998 (Mother Tongue, 2011), All Roads is an oral history. Where the two books differ is in the weave. The artist Jeff Wall once said of his montaged pictures, "If you can see the seams in my work, I have failed," and this seamlessness can be found, as it were, in Cornwall's book, but not Safyan's. This is by no means a failing but an instance where the content -- the lives of Wells's learn-as-you-go, back-to-the-land dreamers -- suggests the form, which is akin to a roughly-stitched quilt, like those that feather the homes Safyan describes in All Roads.

At a time when "reality" TV is one of the biggest fictions going, these transcribed histories are gripping in their honesty -- not for their adventures but for their exquisite banalities (in that sense they have much in common with the work of Jeff Wall). While true that we get more than our share of adventures, both tragic and comic, we also get tales of day-to-day life, where young people struggle with interpersonal relationships, the weather, what they thought they were coming to and what they left behind.

None of the voices in All Roads are more compelling than the others. (Indeed, just as they have worked together to form a community, they have come together to comprise this book.) But some, at least for me, are more attractive than others. More than once I wished I was drinking dandelion wine with Stuart "Zubin" Gillespie in his multi-tiered treehouse, or was one of the lovers Susan Bessette recalled to keep herself awake while working as a highway scale operator.

In addition to the book's quilted structure, Safyan, who lived at Wells between 1980 and 1985 (and still visits), provides a solid, well-researched introduction, where we are told of the books that led younger people to seek new lives in rural North America in the 1960s and 70s, but also the books that were written as a result of such adventures, like Mark Vonnegut's The Eden Express (1975), a real-life account of an upstart commune in Lund, B.C. And while I would have liked to hear Safyan's take on novels such as T. Coraghessan Boyle's Drop City (2003), that book, unlike All Roads, is a fiction (based on fact), not the other way around.

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