Mason also touches on notes of comedy. When a local doctor accompanies young Osgood and prescribes the inhalation of rancid sheep’s milk to cure his apple mania (Mason, himself an experienced doctor, knows the history of quackery), the boy remarks that “it is not crazy to think of fruit.” To which his brother responds: “Sniff, man.”
Over almost 400 pages we get involved in each of these lives and then move on; the only remaining players in this drama of inevitable transformation are Nature and Time. Mason maintains a naturalist’s focus on flora and fauna, on the dissolution of bodies, and on biological processes as seasons turn into years and centuries. In one whimsical passage, a vacationing couple’s erotic entanglement in front of a cabin fireplace in 1956 is juxtaposed with the “sex romps” of two scolytid beetles, described in hilarious detail: “What a perfume! Threo-4-methyl-3-heptanol! Alpha-multistriatin!” Their larvae are in the bark of the firewood the couple brings and carry a vicious spore that will, over time, kill all the chestnut trees around the yellow house.
From this abundance, Mason draws out narrative complexities that I can only nod to here. A Bible from a black family in Canada, a letter written by an anonymous Native American prisoner, a box of home movies, old bones turning up in the spring mud. Documents, artifacts, and stories return through the ages, creating dramatic ironies and evoking both metaphorical and literal ghosts. How can we describe Mason’s sui generis fiction? Think of EL Doctorow, crossed with Wendell Berry, and then blessed with a Nabokovian penchant for pattern, puzzle and echo.
The final ghost to haunt this enchanted forest – bringing the story into the 21st century and looking ahead – is a botanical researcher who notes the insignificance of man’s individual fate. “Indifference,” she says, “is what you might call the great lesson of the world.” And yet, the narrator continues, “she still expects a break, some kind of recognition or acknowledgement.”
The secret of “North Woods,” its blending of the comic and the sublime, lies in the way Mason, deftly switching back and forth between macro and micro, manages to do both. He not only acknowledges but celebrates cosmic indifference, pausing to recognize the people who experience joy and heartbreak as they fight their way into oblivion.