Into the Desperate Country
by Jeff Vande Zande

(March Street Press)

Desperation hunts us all down and corners each one of us at sometime in our lives. Jeff Vande Zande paints an eloquent portrait of this absolute desolation with great care in his debut novel, the tale of a man who finds himself apart from society, driven to desperation by personal tragedy. The title of Jeff Vande Zande's debut novel, Into the Desperate Country, aptly refers to Thoreau's statement in Walden; that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." The desperation of life on the assembly-line drives the hero, Stanley, to his own Walden, a cabin by a river near Gaylord, Michigan. Necessity presses him close to nature, where he lives in a kind of a blessed limbo waiting for the world to close in on him. Unlike Thoreau, he is about to lose his cabin to a bank foreclosure, so his haven is in peril. He is caught between looking for answers to his dilemma outside himself and looking inside himself for the strength he needs to find solutions. Vande Zande does a magnificent job of laying out the maze of thought patterns as Stanley figures out how to get out of the corner he has painted himself into.

Vande Zande, an English professor at Delta College, uses a Michigan setting with authentic detail and extensive, lyrical description, highlighting the beauty of the area. Passages come straight from Michigan's natural settings: "a cacophony of birds like a symphony orchestra warming up;" "across the river-a hornet's nest the size of a basketball dangled from a thin branch above the water-seemed to defy gravity;" "Everything on the water glowed in the moon's light. Downstream the river kept going without him, ghost-lit and gliding until it finally turned a bend." This is the beautiful limbo, the calm before the storm, that Stan is living in for a brief time.

Vande Zande uses Stanley's disintegration to show his closeness to nature and involve nature as a renewing force in life. In a way, Stanley is a "natural man." His hair and beard grow, and by the time a young, attractive blonde woman from the bank comes to examine the property, he has grown quite apart from civilization, hiding from the weekenders, keeping to himself. When he wants to go swimming with his new lady friend, June, he jumps out of his clothes in front of her, not thinking of her embarrassment. He has become too accustomed to operating on impulses. This is an element in his desperation-he has lost his social graces.

If this seems like another book about love solving all problems-guess again. Into the Desperate Country is a chronicle of real humans in the real world grasping at straws, making impulsive choices, screwing up good things, finding something real. Sometimes, Stanley tries to get help from others, yet he must eventually go back to his own understanding. Like us, he must plan his life or else be pressed into making choices out of despair. We are left with his desperation.

- Anne Wolfe