The Hollow Middle by John Popielaski

In John Popielaski’s The Hollow Middle (Unsolicited Press, 381 pages), forty-something Albert, an English teacher in a private school, longs to retreat from the human world. Early on, hungover, he looks out on a river and “waits for the compass needle to flutter less.” The answer, he senses, leads back to nature.

Albert’s wife Mary senses their childless marriage has been on some kind of border and, partly for that reason, develops an interest in adopting two ten-year old autistic boys, twins. Albert is drawn into the plan by the generous stipends the couple will receive for the boys’ care, money which can help fund his back-to-the-land dream. Additionally–in keeping with the novel having an ear toward environmental tampering–he receives funds from a settlement with the U.S. Government for his father’s cancerous death after working decades on a radiation tainted site.

For guidance, Albert’s compass points fluctuate between two very different iconic figures: Dick Proenneke, whose Alaskan documentary film of living off the land inspired many to do the same; and Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk whose self-immolation in Saigon was front page news during the Viet Nam War. Albert admires the former’s technical ability to survive in a wilderness alone, and seems to view the latter’s suicide not so much as an ultimate act of protest, but as a vanishing act with meaning. The two “models” help inspire Albert to acquire 18 wooded acres in Maine where, despite a hyper-mindfulness of all living creatures–he always pulls over to help migrating turtles cross the road–he begins to carve out a new home in the woods for his soon-to-enlarge family.

This is not a book with major tension swings: there are no major shocks, no extreme emotional highs or lows or life changing epiphanies. Lower-hum tensions keep the narrative moving: marital below-the-the surface rumblings, uncertainties as to whether Albert can stop showing up for work, stop paying his mortgage, and eventually lead a newly forged family into the Maine woods where there is concern over a new highway boring through. But these stressors are beveled rather than sharp. This is welcome: instead of feeling manipulated, the reader slips into the writing’s rhythmic swings, up and down curves never arcing too high or low, yet always moving toward small, and sometimes bigger, resolutions and epiphanies.

It further helps that delivery of these lapping rhythms are sub-charged with poetic lilt, not surprising since Popielaski is a poet. Not so much by evoking poetic imagery as through poetic cadence:

“It occurs to him that the pride he takes in biceps whose circumference is a couple inches greater than the average, the pride in bulk and bulge, runs counter to his admiration of the cranes whose strength and grace and vanishing are effortless, in tune, and are in no need of a mirror or an inner voice to confirm that they exist.”

Engaging sentence cadences merge with the longer wavelengths of paragraphs and scenes, propelling the dialogue as well, including Albert’s self-dialogues. Albert spends a lot of time ruminating, but usually in a self-deprecating, often self-mocking way that gently amuses while enlightening. In one instance, Albert’s year-long recovery, earlier in life, from a fractured skull is referenced as the “post-knock reclamation process”. At other times he is able to capture complexity in a phrase, as when he refers to the autistic twins–because of their prodigious special needs–being “stuck in pre-adoption Purgatory.” Throughout, Popielaski’s writing is plainly spun, never overreaching. In describing an evening walk that Albert and his wife take: “They walk out, and it is daylight still. They will return before darkness and settle like two turkeys in the tree of their routine.”

The writing intrinsically engages, even through the longer passages, turning Albert’s ruminations into rhapsodic unveilings sometimes echoing Thomas Wolfe, although less fevered than the youthful, lunging ruminations of Wolfe’s autobiographical characters. Albert is serious, quietly passionate, but is also able to have fun with, or at least whimsically accept, life’s ironies and absurdities, including his own. It is this self-deprecating quality that makes Albert’s self-centeredness forgivable, often laughable, threading in and out of wry insightfulness:

“Albert shuts the bedroom door and pulls down the shades. He lies down and stares at the ceiling, does a quick review of his behavior in the past 12 hours or so and does not fare too well in the accounting. This will pass. It has to, or the living with himself will start to seem like a landfill of discarded, twist-tied moments he can never feel completely rid of or distinct from because he knows that in his lifetime they would always be in some stage of decay, and he would be to blame for their continuing emissions.”

The Hollow Middle is not a mere, back-to-the-land, simple living, pro-environment themed novel, but a heightened, if often wryly conveyed, awareness of being in a human world one can’t quite do without and a natural world one cannot entirely merge into. Popielaski has made that struggle between the two compelling and resonant.

James Shelley, author of The Deep Translucent Pond, 2022.

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