January 28, 2023

Chekhov on Lake Huron

Port Hope lighthouse fall

Alice Munro has been labeled Chekhov on Lake Huron. Jane Smiley described Munro’s writing as quietly powerful, a good comment also for Lake Huron. If there was a Nobel Prize for Lighthouses, this one near Port Hope might have won a 2013 Nobel. Its light shines across Lake Huron, directly toward the familiar settings of Alice Munro’s short stories. Jane Smiley writes in the Washington Post about Chekhov on Lake Huron: “Her voice was practically a whisper, saying: ‘Look around you! Look within! But look closely, carefully. The world is more complex than you realize.’” There were only four comments, compelling one reader of the article to comment that Washington didn’t have any culture, despite its pretensions. Or maybe the world is just too complex for the power brokers to understand.

This lighthouse doesn’t attract a lot of tourists, although a Kickstarter project that concluded in summer will finance a film with the lighthouse as its centerpiece. The motels around here don’t triple the rates for summer tourists like they do for the Lake Michigan side. The clerk near the silently powerful waters of Lake Huron asks what brings you here. On the Lake Michigan side, the motel clerk explains that all rooms are booked, even with triple rates. You’re kidding, I said. Tourists, the clerk explained. Tourists? For what? I said. A young man held a “homeless war vet” sign as the tourists drove past him, saving their money for the inflated motels. A fat kid sticks his head in the car window and shouts at me, “We need a ride.” It’s a familiar shtick. The hustlers never seem to have car problems on the side of a road or highway. The car breaks down or runs out of gas in a perfectly parked high traffic spot just far enough from the front door to escape the looks from security. The kid lacks marketing skills. His eyes are hardened, like he has gotten too used to getting punched no in the face. The other person who makes it a “We need a ride” has stayed out of sight.

This lighthouse facing out across Lake Huron to Alice Munro doesn’t promise a free ride. There’s pain in this lighthouse. But its home base is named Port Hope. The lighthouse beams its own version of look around you! So I keep pad and pen in the car and write down descriptions of the fat kid’s dark rings around his eyes and dirty brown shirt and the black woman sitting slumped over on the parking lot across from the homeless vet. The two of them are competing for dollars and mercy. She could be the kid’s mother. Maybe I was wrong about it being a shtick.

Reading literature like Alice Munro is supposed to be good for the brain. The human brain prefers systems analysis and cheats to make it easier on the thinker. The culture is constantly priming us to think a certain way with its “cultural reminders.” Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow explains the impact of the priming effect, the individual’s conflict with life that causes ego depletion. Graham Greene said it more harshly in his novel Ministry of Fear: “Idealism had ended up with a bullet in the stomach at the foot of the stairs.” Greene’s novel was written during World War Two, a conflict with life resulting in the death of millions of egos.

Great literature must be in conflict with the world to compel the reader to think. Alice Munro’s short stories grow on you. The “mystery and authority” of her Lake Huron are present to the end. There’s a nagging feeling in many of the popular nonfiction books that something is missing. The narrative is too clean and tidy. Everything is primed to perfection in the author’s thesis and world view. The collapse of the family, a shipwreck on the Great Lakes, a late inning grand slam, Hitler’s rise to power, the bullet in the stomach at the foot of the stairs, don’t compute.

It’s almost a six hour drive from the fat homeless kid in the parking lot to the lighthouse near Port Hope. I pass the Amish farms and dozens of Amish are working on the farms and stacking massive wood piles. All the Amish look thin as a rake and resemble a lost tribe. The Amish are three hours and a couple centuries from metro Detroit. Some of them cheat and shop at Walmart. They have a stoic look and always keep to themselves. A group of Chinese visitors come in and stare at everything. The Amish ignore them. The fat kid should have gotten a ride with the Amish. The world is too complex for the rest of us.


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