Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

All That I Have, by Castle Freeman

In this gripping, wise, and darkly funny tale of suspense, Sheriff Lucian Wing confronts a series of trials that test his work, his marriage, and the settled order of his life.
Wing is an experienced, practical man who enforces the law in his corner of Vermont with a steady hand and a generous tolerance. Things are not as they should be, however, in the sheriff’s small, protected domain. The outside world draws near, and threats multiply: the arrival in the district of a band of exotic, major league criminals; an ambitious and aggressive deputy; the self-destructive exploits of a local bad boy; Wing’s discovery of a domestic crisis. The sheriff’s response to these diverse challenges calls on all the personal resources he has cultivated during his working life: patience, tact, and (especially) humour.

Like most book bloggers, I always have too much to read, and that means that it’s incredibly rare for me to read a book more than once. And yet, somehow, I have read All That I Have by Castle Freeman three times in the past year, and I’m hankering to read it again. It’s not some self-help book, just in case you’re wondering, and it’s not even a book about which I’m particularly evangelical. I know there’s a reason that I keep reading All That I Have but I can’t put my finger on what that is and hopefully this piece will help me to figure it out, because heaven help me, there are plenty of other books on the bedside table.

Lucian Wing is the sheriff of seventeen sleepy towns in Vermont. He is a fairly relaxed and philosophical sheriff; he doesn’t attempt to force people into abiding by the laws of the land – preferring to hang back and see how things develop – but he’s usually close by to deal with the fall-out when they do decide to break them. Sheriff Wing doesn’t wear a uniform, carry a gun or drive a county vehicle, and life for the sheriff is pretty quiet. That is, until a mysterious gang of wealthy Russians enter the sheriff’s territory, taking up residence in “Disneyland,” a brand-new mansion hidden away from prying eyes up in the hills. This property is broken into, an object is stolen, and the main suspect is local lothario and petty criminal Sean “Superboy” Duke. Sheriff Wing has some history with Superboy, and over the course of the novel the sheriff is tasked with locating Superboy and the stolen property, before the Russians beat him to it.

Yes, there is a nice clash of old and new worlds, and a few moments of drama, but what is so fascinating about a small town sheriff investigating one relatively minor crime over a period of a few days? Sheriff Wing himself. Sheriff Wing carries the book. The book is written from Wing’s perspective and he is a lovely character. Wing is so utterly convincing in his interactions with his wife, his colleagues and the townsfolk he is employed to protect that he feels real. He is a warm, gentle man who cares more about people than rules, and his old-school, laidback style of sheriffing is a breath of fresh air in a bookscape of hard-nosed cops and cocky CSIs.

Another thing that All That I Have offers is a beautiful representation of a small town community. Despite minor problems with low-level crime and poverty, there is a goodness to the community that made me want to spend time there. The cast of secondary characters is also superb, from the sheriff’s ambitious deputy, to a quietly charming State Trooper and best of all the Sheriff’s wife Clemmie who, when annoyed, is so adept at showing the sheriff “a back like the north side of Mount Nebo.”

The book’s blurb perhaps overplays the comedy, as All That I Have is not a laugh-a-minute farce, but Sheriff Wing’s deadpan humour trickles through the text and some of the blatant disrespect shown to the sheriff by members of the younger generation is amusing, even to the sheriff.

 All That I Have is bound to invite comparisons with the writing of Cormac McCarthy and there are similarities of theme and style, but Castle Freeman’s writing is – for me, at least – warmer and more enjoyable.

I think I am finally beginning to understand what draws me to All That I Have: the sheriff’s relationship with his wife, and specifically an unacknowledged betrayal that stands between them and which emerges near the end of the novel. I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers, but just when the reader thinks Sheriff Wing might confront his wife, the novel ends. Castle Freeman literally leaves the reader wanting more.

This quote from Sheriff Wing comes to mind:

The past is different now. The past has changed. That’s what I can’t get used to. You expect change in the future but you reckon the past is set, it’s permanent. No, it ain’t. The past, my past, our past is different now [. . .] All those years we haven’t been having the life I thought we’d been having. It’s as though you thought you were the cavalry and one day you realize you’re the Indians. You’ve been wrong, you’ve been off about everything, off right from the start. And the start wasn’t yesterday, it wasn’t last week or last month. We’re talking about years, here.

The past is different. It’s true for Sheriff Wing and also for the reader. The sheriff sets to absorbing the change and dealing with it privately, leaving the reader short-changed of a dramatic confrontation scene. This device could be a disaster in the hands of lesser writers, but here it works beautifully, casting a new hue on everything in the novel. I think that’s why I keep turning back to the beginning of All That I Have. Just like Sheriff Wing, I am trying to understand his new past.

Duckworth Overlook, ISBN: 9780715639023, 176 pages, paperback.

Lisa has just released her own novel about a small town community, SNAKE BEACH, available in e-book form here and here.

6 comments on “All That I Have, by Castle Freeman

  1. stonafitch
    April 18, 2012

    I’m so glad you found Castle’s books, Lisa. He’s a terrific writer and his previous novel, Go With Me, is one of my all-time favorites and the kind of book writers are always recommending to each other. Short and powerful. The Concord Free Press just published Round Mountain, a great collection of Castle’s short stories. If Vulpes Libris readers are interested, copies are available (for free, of course) at http://www.concordfreepress.com

  2. Lisa
    April 18, 2012

    Lovely to hear from you, Stona, and I am so excited to hear that The Concord Free Press has published a collection of Castle’s short stories. What a coup! I would love to read Round Mountain, and I’m sure many VL readers will feel the same (especially as the book is free to all).

  3. Jackie
    April 18, 2012

    What a lovely review. I bet that it’s also the subtle philosophy that draws you to this book, as well as the personality of Sheriff Wing. The book sounds as much of a character study as a mystery, which would make it enjoyable.
    Thank heavens you said it was different than Cormac McCarthy. He’s a boring & over rated writer.
    Is there a series featuring Sheriff Wing or might this be the first book of one?

  4. victoriacorby
    April 21, 2012

    What an enticing review! I love stories about small town America, American authors seem to be able to write them so much better than when British authors try to do something similar. This has gone straight on the wish list.

  5. Lisa
    April 23, 2012

    Jackie, you’re dead right about the philosophy. I don’t think this is a series, but Castle Freeman has some other books set in small towns in Vermont, which I’ll be checking out.

    Victoriacorby, thank you, and I hope you manage to get this one. I’m already looking forward to reading it again. It’s definitely something very special.

  6. Pingback: Interesting books – in brief « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on April 18, 2012 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: crime, Fiction: literary, Fiction: thriller.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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