Hansen, Ron. Atticus: A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. 247 pages.
Ron Hansen 1947—
Just when we thought that we would not see any more great American novels, Ron Hansen has given us, not only Mariette in Ecstasy but, far more to my liking, Atticus. Hansen has created a “sundog” with this fine novel.
Hansen paints his characters with words as the lead character, Scott Cody, paints with brush and canvas. Impressions. He daubs his canvas with an attitude, a gesture, a scene that smells, tastes, feels, sounds like life itself. From the moment Atticus sees his first Parhelion, at age sixty, foreshadowing identity issues; until his mysterious encounters in Mexico, we sense that we are there with him in all his pain and sorrow. We watch him and want to help him understand Scott. But we find that impossible. Atticus lives from his Weltanschauung (worldview) and Scott is held prisoner to his own.
The characters that orbit Atticus and Scott come alive and draw our suspicion. We’ve all known Scott, Renata, Stuart, and Reinhardt, even Carmen and Renaldo, yet they are not caricatures. Soon we do not realize we are reading anymore, but we are there, in steamy Resurreccion. The narrative catches us up and carries us along into places we have been and never want to be again. We know that something is wrong, but do not know what. We sense something amiss. Hansen planted clues all along the way. We are not only feeling that we are witnesses, we are.
We know that somehow Atticus and Scott’s relationship is bigger than the sum of its parts. Atticus, the compassionate father, will not let the apparent tragedy rest. Scott’s home is Resurreccion. Atticus must leave the U.S. Surely life can come from death. Just as the phoenix rises, new beginnings can rise from the ashes of hopelessness. Perhaps the natural, mirrors the supernatural: multiple sundogs here for him who has eyes to see, ears to hear. Twin suns in the sky. Scott and Reinhardt. The Codys and the prodigal and his father.
This brings us to the point of the experience. We come to the story within a fine story–Shakespeare’s play within the play. Atticus’s story. Scott’s story within the greater context of all that has brought Atticus to Resurreccion. Merely because the story is there to tell? Or has the author created a divine appointment for his reader? We’re afloat in a paranormal sense of proximity and place very close to divine grace.
Planned or no, the reader is faced with questions of life and death, identity, offense, and forgiveness, sin and redemption. Not only for the characters in the novel, but with a skillful use of understatement, the reader is confronted with herself. Yet never a sense of sterile, impersonal preachiness.
Hansen takes the reader on quite a ride but we find the road has twists and turns that sweep us to the grand finale. We find at the end, what J. R. R. Tolkien termed, the eucatastrophe (Greek: “good resolve”)—the redemptive climax that makes the reading investment worthwhile—the exceptional ending, one that uplifts from mists of melancholy, that draws out the best in the human spirit.
After all, Ron Hansen’s writing is much more than the obscene voyeurism of so many contemporary writers. They find it passé to conclude hopefully or with grace. History will forget them, but my guess is that generations to come will study Hansen’s work in Literature class.
1. Atticus was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award for fiction.
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, also written by Ron has been made into a movie and was released in 2007, starring Brad Pitt.
QUESTIONS FOR READING GROUPS:
Other works by Ron Hansen are in my “Featured Books” list.
(c) 2004, David C Alves, revised 2011. Updated links.