'House of Earth' has no plot but it taps into a new world

Mark Caro / Chicago Tribune /


Published Feb 17, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

CHICAGO — Nora Guthrie had put off reading her late father Woody Guthrie’s recently unearthed novel, “House of Earth,” even after she’d agreed for it to be published. Having devoted much of 2012 to preparing events and projects surrounding the centennial of the singer-songwriter-artist’s birth, she said, she wanted to read the book at her leisure, when it wouldn’t feel like “work.”

So it wasn’t until last fall that she started in on the manuscript’s pages and soon reached the lengthy, graphic sex scene in a cowshed during which the husband and wife discuss the benefits of adobe homes.

“I went, ‘Dad! Whoa!’” Nora Guthrie, 63, recalled on the phone from the New York-based Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, of which she is the director.

She was encountering what she calls the “slightly undomesticated animal side of him” — Woody Guthrie writing about the time before he moved to New York City and became a famous folk singer and got into the habit of wearing clean clothes. This was Dust Bowl Woody, a man earthy not only in sensibility and humor but also in philosophy. Everything in “House of Earth” — life, sex, nature, shelter — is intended to spring from the Earth.

It’s a book that could have been written only by someone with talent: a keen ear for dialogue, a deep sense of empathy, sharp powers of observation and a lyrical way with words. Paragraph after paragraph could have been recast in the kind of epic ballads that made Guthrie famous.

For instance, there’s this description of the elements’ toll on the protagonists’ wooden house in the Texas upper plains:

“Then the long keen rays of the late spring sun would come. They would shine down against the house for several hours out of every day. They sucked. They bit. They scratched. They clawed and they chewed at the boards. And they sipped the wild saps, gums, rosins, juices, and waters out again with sunrays, winds, the dry tongue and lips of the weather that sings, then whispers, then sucks, and kisses all of the little houses until they are dry again and brittle. And this was the dryness of the heat against the house.”

Idosyncratic fiction

“House of Earth” also is — let’s be honest — a misfit of a novel, taking its place in a long tradition of idiosyncratic fiction authored by accomplished musicians (among them Bob Dylan’s “Tarantula,” John Lennon’s “In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works,” and assorted works by Nick Cave). It dates from 1946 to 1947, which places it after he moved to New York, wrote “This Land Is Your Land” and saw the publication of his memoir “Bound for Glory,” a book filled with incident and drama. More happens on the train in the first chapter of “Bound for Glory” than in all of “House of Earth.”

This, no doubt, is by design. Guthrie’s interest here lies less in constructing a dramatic arc than drilling deep into the lives of an isolated married couple, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, as they subsist in a rickety wooden house on desolate land that they will never own.

Guthrie, never shy about sharing his leftist views, fills his novel with speeches and platform statements, such as this exchange between Tike and Ella May:

“I wish you’d think up some kind of a way to get us a piece of nice good farmin’ land, with an adobe house on it, an’ a big adobe fence all around it.”

“There’s not but one way. And that is to just keep on working and fighting and fighting and working, and then to work and to save and to save and to fight some more,” she said.

Mind you, this dialogue comes in the middle of the sex scene.

The only characters in the novel are Tike — whose crude humor, plain-spoken yearnings and fighting spirit remind Nora Guthrie of her father — the spirited, long-suffering Ella May, and a young woman, Blanche, who arrives to help with a baby delivery. Nature and that old not-adobe house, with its gaps and cracks for letting in the dust and wind and snow, occupy the rest of the author’s attention.

Nora Guthrie acknowledged the novel’s lack of plot or narrative momentum.

“This is like a lot of nothing — a lot of nothing happening,” she said. “I think what kind of got to me is it pulled me as a human being down to that same place, the repetition of it and the unrelenting quality of it day after day after day: nature, people, farm, shelter, sex. It’s just this repetitive, unrelenting existence.”

‘Stumbled on’ a book

“House of Earth” came out Feb. 5 from Infinitum Nihil, actor Johnny Depp’s new HarperCollins imprint. Depp and historian/author Douglas Brinkley (“Cronkite,” “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast”) are credited with editing the novel and writing its lengthy introduction, though Guthrie said she dealt only with Brinkley in the book’s preparation.

In their introduction Brinkley and Depp, who received a Grammy nomination for their liner notes to the 2008 documentary “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” (Brinkley is Thompson’s literary executor), speculate on why “House of Earth” went unpublished following its completion in 1947: Perhaps Guthrie “sensed that some of the content was passe,” or maybe the graphic sex was too much in a climate in which Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” had been banned in the U.S.

But Tiffany Colannino, archivist at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York’s Westchester County, said there’s no way to know what Guthrie actually was thinking on this matter.

“We don’t have him writing about ‘House of Earth’ at all,” Colannino said. “We don’t have him making any comment on it.”

She is relatively certain that Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967 at age 55, sent a complete version of the manuscript to filmmaker Irving Lerner, who had worked on some socially conscious documentaries — though how the author imagined that a late-’40s feature film might be crafted from a story in which the characters do little other than argue, have sex, contemplate their struggles and rhapsodize about adobe houses is anyone’s guess. At any rate the film never got made, but Lerner’s copy of the novel was donated to the University of Tulsa’s Guthrie collection.

Brinkley and Depp write that they “stumbled on” “House of Earth” there while researching material about Bob Dylan for a separate project. Colannino said the archive had a photocopy of the Lerner manuscript as well, and when Brinkley called for permission to edit and publish it, she and Nora Guthrie gave the OK.

“I said, ‘OK, you’re a smart guy. If you think it’s good enough to publish, I’ll trust you on this,’” Nora Guthrie recalled.

Brinkley and Depp, who call the novel “a significant cultural event and a major installment in the corpus of his published work,” note that editing was minor, with two paragraphs restructured and some spellings tweaked and “cosmetic changes” made. Colannino said Guthrie liked to elongate some vowel sounds, and some of those were edited for comprehension’s sake while maintaining the spirit of the language.

An excerpt from “House of Earth”

“House of Earth” by Woody Guthrie (Infinitum Nihil, 288 pgs., $25.99)

Tike’s face was sad for a second, but before she turned her eyes toward him, he slapped himself in the face with the back of his hand, in a way that always made him smile, glad or sad. “Let it be rotten, Lady.” He put his hands on his hips and took a step backward, and stood looking the whole house over. “Guess it’s got a right to be rotten if it wants to be rotten, Lady. Goldern whizzers an’ little jackrabbits! Look how many families of kids that little ole shack has suckled up from pups. I’d be all rickety an’ bowlegged, an’ bent over, an’ sagged down, an’ petered out, an’ swayed in my middle, too, if I’d stood in one spot like this little ole shack has, an’ stood there for fifty-two years. Let it rot. Rot! Rot down! Fall down! Sway in! Keel over! You little ole rotten piss soaked bastard, you! Fall!” His voice changed from one of good fun into words of raging terror. “Die! Fall! Rot!”