Missoula-based writer David James Duncan has been on the road promoting the August release of “Sun House,” his first novel in 31 years. His favorite encounter — so far — happened at Powell’s Books in Portland.
“This woman said her parents weren’t comfortable with an ultrasound, but there was a character in [Duncan’s second novel] ‘The Brothers K’ that they just had to name their child after,” he told Montana Free Press in a recent interview. “So, she said, ‘I’m happy to tell you I’m a 24-year-old woman, and my name is Everett.’”
Duncan’s first two novels are beloved and award-winning works about family tensions and American pastimes.
“My first novel is pretty damn happy,” Duncan said of his 1982 debut, “The River Why,” which, like its forebear, Norman Maclean’s story “A River Runs Through It,” was initially rejected by every major publisher before being brought out by a small independent press. Both would bring commercial publishers groveling following the mass-cult success of their fly-fishing-centric stories. Duncan also delivers readers a happy conclusion after much suffering in “The Brother’s K,” about baseball, politics and religion, published in 1992.
A collection of short stories and a memoir followed, and then “God Laughs & Plays,” a series of “churchless sermons in response to the preachments of the fundamentalist right,” was published in 2006. In 2010, Duncan and fellow Montana writer Rick Bass released a collection of environmental essays titled “The Heart of the Monster.” Since then, Duncan has been busy composing “Sun House,” referred to as a “beautiful behemoth” by his editor.
“Sun House” is a 776-page epic about an “unintentional menagerie” of people who become intertwined, each with a specific knowledge of the world that links Sanskrit to Buddhism to character-invented “Dumpster Catholicism” and the semi-monastic 17th century community of Christian Beguines, among others. The immense text builds world theologies and historical movements into a narrative framework that moves the characters toward a higher consciousness. The vast amount of research, exploration, and time spent with fellow practitioners, as Duncan acknowledges in the book’s meaty bibliography, could explain the 31-year gap between this novel and his last.
“We need our consciousness to raise if we’re going to survive as humanity,” Duncan said. “I didn’t want to editorialize even once. I wanted to show people, in the moment, that they’re having a consciousness-changing experience. And this novel is a compendium of those kinds of experiences.”
In the book’s acknowledgements, Duncan describes his desire to create “descriptions of what this consciousness looks, feels, tastes, sounds and lives like … with the love, truthfulness, and justice they demand.”
Chapters alternate between main characters as they meet and eventually form a communal living project and cattle company in Montana to “serve the living continent they love” in response and opposition to “Big Chain Big Bargain Big Everything.”
“I call it an ‘unintentional menagerie’ because intentional communities often implode because of warring intentions,” Duncan told MTFP. “Let’s get intention out of there and have a softer word like ‘menagerie’ that can let some grace descend.”
“Sun House” quickly envelopes readers in language that offers up new ways of thinking. There’s an honorable gentleness in the characters that engenders a longing to understand our fellow humans.
Set in motion by circumstance, each character finds their own peaceful “Blue Empty” where the self melts away and the soul expands, a phenomenon described by the mountain-loving folk singer and central character Lorilee Shay: “In Zen circles they talk of ‘beginner’s mind.’ But in Blue Empty there’s no beginner, no mind, no ideas. Everything present is what’s present. Self vanishes.”
People forget that there isn’t anything real in any sunflower or starry sky that van Gogh ever painted,” Duncan said. “There isn’t anything real in anything Bach or Beethoven ever composed, and yet it is intensely, viscerally emotional. And I really feel that our emotions are more important than our thoughts in terms of our spiritual evolution.”
Duncan is exploring transcendentalism in a world that doesn’t want to slow down, so he enlists the support of other writers by embedding epigraphs atop each chapter, starting with wisdom from Annie Dillard and a nod to the temporary status of human life, from “The Writing Life.”
“Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”
“‘Sun House’ arrives in places of hope, but I think it’s folly to try to deny that we are in a very dark time — an unprecedented time,” Duncan said. “And so, I thought I’d just get right to it and create an absurd situation that has actually happened.”
Duncan saw a news article about a child being killed by a bolt dislodged from a jet in the 1970s. A more recent incident reminded him of the improbability of such a death: An Amish girl riding home in a buggy was accidently killed by a man cleaning his musket a mile away when the gun discharged.
Throughout the novel, Duncan mixes the stories and worlds we know — like the political discord of the United States and the majesty of the Grand Tetons and Montana author Tom McGuane — with the fictional Elkmoon mountain range and experiences inspired by the many people and mountains Duncan has known.
‘FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS’
Duncan says his writing life generally consists of composing for the first five hours of his day — “but I can edit for another five hours, especially if, after about seven hours, I switch from caffeine to white wine,” he said. “I can work into the night sipping white wine — as long as I don’t guzzle it. And it’s a good companion for finding the right words.”
The thesaurus helps, but “a thesaurus is only interesting because it can never find the word you’re searching for,” Duncan said. “It gives you all the answers. I just stay after it until I find that word.”
When writing “Sun House,” Duncan used his table of contents as a map and rewrote it at least 100 times, he said. “I just got to know the material so well over all those years.”
The novel creates an immersive experience with its thin, Bible-like pages and various font treatments that indicate journal entries and dream sequences, different tones of voice, and winding narration, which makes reading feel akin to following a snaking river.
“I love the way a giant novel can circle back at a much later time,” Duncan said. “When these dramatic scenes come back in a new register, I just think it creates incredible lifelikeness. I’ve had people respond in tears as they’re typing to me about those very scenes.”
Such scenes are “the jewels on your fingers” and a “melancholy joy to write,” Duncan said. He is a keen observer of the world and a sharp and tenacious — though admittedly slow — writer. As “Sun House” unfolded, he became immersed in the meter and impact of the sentences. “If it wasn’t coming to me in language that was so honed that it could convey the emotion, I knew I wasn’t there,” he said. “And I would just make another pass when I was feeling really on.”
Duncan descends from four generations of Montanans who originally settled in the Ruby River valley. His great-grandfather was a sheepherder renowned for keeping his herd alive with a trade secret that involved tobacco and mothballs.
In many ways, “Sun House” harkens back to that great-grandfather’s day and a more communal way of living in the U.S. that has nearly vanished beneath suburbs, online ordering and free shipping.
“It is reminding us of how wonderful it is to live in a community of deep trust, help each other out, do the thing that you do well — that your neighbor doesn’t know how to do — while they do the same for you.”
‘A REMARKABLE LIFE’
Born in Portland, Duncan has lived in Montana since 1993. Portland of the late 1970s through the 1990s is featured prominently in “Sun House.” Other scenes were influenced by time he spent in India and at Oregon’s Our Lady of Guadalupe — a Trappist monastery he first started visiting at age 18 — and his studies with disciples of Japanese Soto Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, one of the most influential Zen teachers in America during the 1960s and ’70s.
“I’ve had a remarkable life in a lot of ways,” Duncan said. “I have had so many things happen to me where I have received … you could call it a mystical experience. I don’t have a better name than that. And it has inspired me, and it’s shown me things. And it’s also made me willing.”
Duncan’s writing is influenced by Montana’s vistas just as much as his experiences. “I’ve had amazing windows to look out of,” he said. His longtime 500-square-foot study on top of a two-car garage just outside of Lolo offered up beautiful scenery, and many years later when he moved to Missoula’s Target Range neighborhood, he also had a spectacular view.
“Every deer that passed through, and amazing birds — sandhill cranes just below my house, trumpeter swans with 10-foot wingspans going by … And I was in it,” Duncan said. “I was in what I was writing about and only had to add my characters.”
Duncan now lives on Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula.
Though it’s tempting to see Duncan as the narrator of this epic story — referred to as “The Holy Goat” — he says he only lent his nickname to the character. Writer Sherman Alexie dubbed Duncan “The Holy Goat” when he was sprouting a chin of red whiskers and presenting the “churchless sermons” of “God Laughs & Plays” on tour.
“Sherman took one look at my beard and just went, ‘The Holy Goat.’ And it became my nickname. And it still is,” Duncan said.
Narrator or not, Duncan recognizes himself in the novel.
“I’m the first person who really got to live there,” Duncan said of the community he created. “And the fruits of what it felt like to live amongst those people, if you combine it with my incredible circle of friends — in many other very important ways, those connections are there.”
Duncan has not been able to return to the novel’s ending since finishing it with a scene so touching he says it haunts him.
“I’ll never be able to read that scene because it’s so beautiful. It just knocks me on my face. But I think it’s a hell of a good way to end the novel. You’ll have to see how you feel about it when you get there.”
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