The Guestroom Novelist: A Donald Harington Miscellany, ed. Brian Walter
This review first appeared in OzarksWatch magazine, Series 2, Vol 8 No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2019).
Just about anyone who loves Ozarks writing has encountered the novels of Donald Harington, whether through The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (perhaps his best-known work), With (my favorite), or any other of his fourteen novels, characterized by Harington’s audacious story structure, inventive style, and interconnected references to his other novels. Now comes The Guestroom Novelist, a collection of nonfiction work by and about Harington, edited by Brian Walter, professor of English at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.
Harington was first and essentially a novelist; Walter recalls an early moment in their friendship when he asked him, “What kind of projects are you working on now?” Harington swiftly replied, “’Projects!’ I don’t do ‘projects.’ I write novels!” Thus one might wonder what can be gained from reading a collection of nonfiction from someone who didn’t expend much of his own mental capital in the genre.
It’s a reasonable question, and one not easily answered. The book is divided into three parts: “Essays, Articles, and Speeches”; “Reviews”; and “Interviews,” with the interview section taking up two-thirds of the book. And the largest part of that largest part consists of interviews that the editor himself conducted with Harington in 2006 and 2007.
The first section includes the title essay of the book, “The Guestroom Novelist in America,” which was first delivered as a lecture in 1990, and which appears in print for the first time here. Strictly speaking, it’s not about Harington’s own work, but about other writers, the kind of writers whose novels never quite achieve the level of recognition and sales they deserve, and are consigned to the shelf in the guest room where they sit, neglected and only occasionally read and rediscovered. But Harington considered himself the “epitome” of guestroom novelists, so the essay provides insight into his self-regard, anxieties, and view of the publishing marketplace. A recurrent note in the book is Harington’s somewhat self-justifying complaints about the vagaries of publishers and agents. Other essays don’t age as well, serving as artifacts of Harington’s concerns at a particular point in his career without offering retrospective insight into his literary contributions.
Likewise with the reviews, which were mostly written for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette between 1996 and 2006. Harington appears to have written them mainly to supplement his income, and some have a tossed-off feel while others are more considered.
But for the fan of Harington’s novels, the treasure of this book is the interviews. Harington was deaf from childhood, so interviewers had to submit questions in writing. As a result, his answers have a more considered quality than many transcribed oral interviews. One lengthy set of “interviews” goes even further. A section titled “The Linda Hughes and Larry Vonalt Interviews” is presented as a transcript of a series of television interviews conducted in May 1979 with two literature professors at the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology). Walter tells us these interviews “turned up unexpectedly in a search of Harington’s hard drive,” but whether the documents are actually TV interview transcripts is extremely doubtful. It seems more likely that Harington created the “interviews” as a way of discussing his early novels during a visiting professorship at Rolla, basing it on conversations with the two professors, or possibly wrote them later (Walter points out that the interview files use a less-than-common technology for the 1970s). In any event, they provide considerable insight into Harington’s creative preoccupations.
Similarly, in the long interviews Walter conducted with Harington, entitled “The Stay More Interviews” after the name of the fictional community where most of Harington’s books are centered, Harington goes into great length about his characters, plots, and literary goals. Authors are rarely the best guides to their own work, operating more by instinct than by system and over- or under-estimating their achievements; but these interviews provide sensitive readers with excellent insight into what Harington thought he was doing in his novels, which can then be tested against the readers’ own perceptions.
Donald Harington is often described as the Ozarks’ greatest novelist, a description that is hard to dispute. This book is a useful contribution to his thoughts and opinions, but it will appeal more to the dedicated Harington fan than to the uninitiated. Those folks should begin with some of his novels and see if they catch the bug, then return to this book if they crave a deeper dive.