Walking Down Main Street

Ruth Moore’s Maine 1950’s small-town characters enter The Walk Down Main Street individually. At first it’s a parade. Then they take up residence together for us in interacting, unfolding their relations, within community. This is a novel in which yare (yeah), gaumy (gormy), and they (their or there) might signify the peculiar Downeast accent.

Martin Hoodless we meet first, quintessential hard-working stubborn judgmental curmudgeonly “old Mainer.” Hoodless is in the egg production business, built from ground upwards and finally debt-free (for the second time). The crank thinks the town’s preoccupation with basketball, and its team in particular, is worthless. (That sentiment is not quintessential Maine.)

From there we move into the basketball crisis, a character at a time. Straight off the basketball court, straight out of the gymnasium, Moore’s characters weave interconnections, unfolding the central role of this walk down the mid-20th century Main Street. They are stars on Main Street —Shirttail for instance, suddenly and surprisingly he’s elevated by his unexpected superior moves on the court.

“Who’s Shirttail?” Martin Hoodless snaps the question after the parade goes by. “Somebody going around naked, I guess?” To an old but smitten friend, he gladly reveals his ignorance of details in the town’s current craziness. Turns out “Shirttail” is his grandson, living with him in the old-fashioned iconic Maine 19th-century extended dwelling—in Martin’s extended family household.

We meet family members one at a time and, last of all, we meet Shirttail’s brother Ralph. The one we can’t help liking best. Ruth Moore has indeed saved the best Hoodless for last.

Someone says this book gives him the warm-fuzzies. My own theory is that the warm fuzzies might not be possible if Ralph and his predicament weren’t here walking down Main Street.

But also there is Alfred, the Jewish chemistry teacher, commissioned to teach these coastal-town kids his subject. He shunned a passion for research and his Midwestern roots to come here “from away” for this purpose of teaching. Yet, while trying his hardest, he’s expected to turn even his peripheral vision away, when it comes to grading and the occasional, increasingly regular, cheat—if it involves a basketball player. These kids are on their way to Boston—can’t you see that? They are bringing home the New England trophy! Don’t stand in the way of this town’s fanaticism with your chemistry, your egghead education—not when something like this is at stake.

Patiently it’s explained to him by the melancholy defeated principal, James Goss. Goss and the narrative both allude to a mid-20th-century contemporaneous American presidential contest when “eggheads” were mocked (i.e. Adlai Stevenson by Dwight Eisenhower and others). Sardonically says Goss, We don’t want to make these kids into strangers to the grown-ups in their families. Some may notice Richard Russo’s echo of this very threat in Empire Falls. Chemistry is not as important as basketball and never can be. Alfred is also despised by many for his Jewish heritage, coupled with the egg-headedness he’s got going in class. The students call him Bugsy.

My extra-textual idea to encourage Alfred, would be to use the egghead stuff in ways to make his subject powerful, interesting and personal for his students. (I would not so presume were Ruth Moore and the story my contemporaries.) James Goss does what he can, but impotently…. Only showing Alfred he agrees that education should come first … but, other than genuine commiseration, Goss can do nothing. His nothing-doing is sickening him, however. He was quietly devastated by Art Grindel, the previous basketball star turned inadvertent murderer during a hold up. The basketball star in small-town Maine did not know what to do with himself when the starlight inevitably faded from the sidewalk.

There is a reason why Maine small-town life is endlessly worthy of the kind of attention Ruth Moore gives it. I need to get back to Ralph, and Ralph’s own powerfully personal crisis. The sole player who resists the town’s fixation—haplessly thinking basketball is supposed to be fun. His walk down Main Street becomes a buffeting.

Ruth Moore does a very interesting thing with this hapless character. Ralph escapes danger when he is marooned on an island seemingly without a way home. But Moore chooses to elide the episode, suppress its emotional power, by not showing us Ralph’s escape, thereby reconciling and complementing it with the understated narrative style. She takes the town out of its stereotypical small mindedness, bringing subtlety through a showing of deep caring for “the real.” —The real caring of humanity by members in community. It’s in that strange communal interlude, when Ralph shows up missing (that is, he does not show). For townsfolk, he has just disappeared, igniting their caring in a remarkable way. Immediately on his intrepid return, renewed buffeting follows on the heels of communal relief. The narrative works wonderfully in subtle compression of this sub-climactic event.

If Alfred wanted a further awakening, a more complete abstract analysis of what the physical man is, he might have brought recent contemporaneous history into it. Alfred might have done a chemical analysis of what happens while a player shoots for the basket, runs down-court dribbling the ball. Or—especially—what happened to their fellow humans during the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities; or in brutal European concentration camps—bringing in the emotional/physical insofar as it is chemically related. This would have the powerful emotional and psychological effect desired, deepening students’ awareness of what it means to be materially human in a way they would not forget. Use the subject of chemistry in aid of humanity—the humanity of basketball stars and others’ student activities. The specialist’s, the materialist’s view is seldom nuanced to include the whole person. Students might’ve learnt this in a deeply telling way—and they would also learn important stuff about chemistry.

It might be worth its weight in yare’s (yeah), gaumy’s (gormy’s), and they’s (their’s). Then again, maybe not. (As they say here.)