Edward Dorn’s By the Sound revolves around the day-to-day lives of two couples struggling to do more than just scrape by while living in the Skagit valley in 1958. There is some very fine writing about our lowland environment that is blended in beautifully with details about the domestic lives of the main characters and their interactions with the locals they meet at bars, the unemployment office, and the union hall. The book falls somewhere between William Kennedy’s Ironweed and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row – not as stark or depressing as the former, but without the sentimentality of the latter.
I found this to be a quick, interesting read, and stylistically very enjoyable, though I could imagine some readers might complain about some politically-incorrect stereotyping. Other readers might feel that the story, like the characters’ lives, never really arrives anywhere – but it’s this desperation caused by the lack of opportunity that Dorn wishes to stress. If there is a hint that things might be turning a corner for one couple at the end of the book, it is only through their pulling up stakes to try their luck elsewhere.
Here’s Dorn, forty years ago, on the tedium of Puget Sound winters – it seems the meterologic and economic forecasts of our own times are no less weighty or languorous:
There are clusters of days when the dense mist verging on rain, yet not rain in the sense the man from the east will understand it, cuts the vision and shivers the body. When the temperature is in the thirties, one needs an extraordinary amount of clothing. Smoke curling from the many stovepipe chimneys parallels the ground and hangs there. It is wood smoke, so the smell is not bad, but the characteristic heaviness of everything, in which everything drips, has another effect. Days go by in which there seems to be no variation whatever. If there is little hope to begin with, its undercutting will soon be accomplished.
By the Sound still captures the spirit of the Northwest and is suitably moody reading for what Steinbeck might describe as yet another winter of our discontent.
Edward Dorn was best known for his politically engaged poetry. He spent several years at the influential Black Mountain College. The American West is prominent in much of his writing.