Stan Carter is a fish. And when we think about all that a fish needs to survive, namely water and the oxygen that comes from it, we can read Jeff Vande Zande's novel Into the Desperate Country from something of an ichthyological perspective, an adequate thyological worldview for this humble reviewer. And we all know what happens when a fish is thrown from his water...
In Vande Zande's story, Stan finds himself at a crossroads between rejoining the socialized realm and lingering in the aloneness that he has deliberately chosen for himself. Iit is the conundrum of worlds colliding that forms the tale. Stan lives alone in a cabin in the woods, though it's not freely and clearly his. Thus enters a pretty bank employee, June, who attempts to prompt Stan to decide upon a course of action for his property. But is she also attempting to prompt him into something more akin to friendship, or even love? Stan, blasted from his solitary routine by physical desire for June, is compelled to find her and clarify the attraction. But he's been isolated for so long, and has such a difficult time understanding his own motivations, that he becomes caught up in a succession of almost comical misadventures as he seeks to pin down exactly what it is he's feeling for June.
This pursuit forms the basis of the story, but it's not a simple saga of man looking for and finding elucidation in the arms of a woman. It's not a simple story at all; the undercurrents of choice, manipulation, freedom, even desperation are all present and form a powerful sinkhole with a vortex that Stan may or may not swim through.
Much about this novel lies with the reader and, to an extent, the reader's gender. I was mildly disappointed in the character of June, as I could never quite get a feel for her. Is she, like so many women, using care and sensitivity for Stan as a preliminary to ensnaring him in a life that is her choosing and not his? Or is she, like the best of us, happy to be who she is and sharing with him out of abundance and not paucity of character? This is an aspect of the novel that will intrigue most of the female readers and will forever beg the question as June is somewhat sketchily portrayed more as a sex object than real woman. And, of course, any woman might relate to the awful event of being pursued by a man who doesn't understand himself.
There are those people, like Thoreau, who have such a difficult time navigating intimate relationships, whether it is friendship or sexual intimacy. It's always difficult to keep any sort of connection with these people as they seem to pale and gasp for oxygen the minute they form any bond with another person. Into the Desperate Country can bring readers a bit closer to understanding people such as Stan, individuals who are wonderful, colorful fish needing the sustenance that they can find only in their solitary dives.